Protesters Should Collaborate With the Whitney in Protest of Gas Pipeline

by Paddy Johnson on April 16, 2015 · 4 comments Newswire + Opinion

Protesters projected onto the side of the Whitney Source: NYTimes

Protesters projected onto the side of the Whitney Source: NYTimes

Monday night about two dozen protesters took the streets of the Meatpacking District to protest the Whitney Museum’s decision to build a new mega-museum on top of a Spectra Energy natural gas pipeline. The pipeline brings gas that has been fracked (a practice known to use carcinogens and toxins) from Pennsylvania to New York. So, that’s bad. Pipelines are also dangerous—is it really a good idea to build a museum over something that could explode?

It’s a good question, though one might ask the same question about building museums on known fault lines (like any museum in Christchurch, New Zealand, or San Francisco for that matter). We do it anyway. Sometimes our options are limited. The Whitney’s location is arguably more problematic though; unlike fault lines, the kind of fuel we use tends to be tied to political debate.

Speaking of the museum’s unwillingness to discuss the issue with the group and the financial clout of Spectra, artist and activist Noah Fischer told Hyperallergic: “It is a perfect picture of how invincible the 1% feels with their money and business strategies, because a lot of people are making money off Spectra.” Fischer was part of Monday’s protest.

Does Fischer mean that the museum’s board members profit off Spectra’s fracking or is he simply speaking more generally? I reached out to Fischer yesterday for further clarification but he has not responded for comment. When I reached out over Twitter to Occupy Museums, one of 23 groups sponsoring Monday’s action, and asked whether the protest had specific goals, I was told that the group sought “public conversation about cultural institution’s role in our energy future.”

On this front, protesters have already succeeded, though the response has not been entirely positive. According to Mostafa Heddaya at Artinfo, the protest is “based on an irresponsible and inaccurate assessment of natural gas infrastructure.” He writes that while New York City has an older than average  infrastructure—that frequently leaks and corrodes—the protested pipeline is brand new, and given the highly populated area it runs under, likely to be safer than most older lines in the city.

Heddaya reached out to the Whitney for his article. A spokesperson for the museum told Heddaya that the “Spectra pipeline does not pass directly under the museum’s property, and ‘is a federal initiative, supported by the City and State’ whose ongoing safety is monitored by the relevant regulators.”

In response to Heddaya’s article, The Whitney Pipeline activist group retorts that the gas line is a great safety risk; it runs under the Hudson River, where it is subject to constant moisture. Furthermore, according to the group, FERC regulators (nicknamed “the Rubberstamp Machine”) fail us. Internal inspection for corrosion is required only once every 7 years, remote monitoring is done from an office in Texas, and inspectors are asked to walk the grounds regularly and check for dead grass.

But this is a bureaucratic failing that the Whitney has no control over. That’s not to say it’s an issue the museum can ignore. Clearly it shouldn’t. The approach of the protesters, though, has been, at times, counter-productive. Sane Energy Project (SEP) describes a disconnect between red-carpet galas and upstate residents who are now ill from fracking. A truism, but hardly evidence that the Whitney has acted irresponsibly. Neither SEP or any of the other protester groups have brought up the fact that the museum is seeking LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental) gold certification, which would make it the first museum in the city to meet these goals. Keeping use of natural gas down is a common reason to create buildings that meet these certification standards.

Given that the museum and these various groups seem to have common concerns, perhaps a more productive approach to this problem would be to join forces to push for greater regulatory oversight. After all, no one wants to see the museum’s collection damaged, and the Whitney literally has hundreds of millions invested in making sure that doesn’t happen.


Karlo Yonit April 16, 2015 at 11:22 pm

You telling me that a big explosion under the Whitney museum would not be the most amazing beautiful explosion ? Museum Art everywhere like huge inferno

Emily Falvey April 17, 2015 at 2:03 pm

Interesting point of view. I too question whether “having a public conversation” is an effective political strategy against the gas and oil industry. Seems like it might just be distracting us from more coherent, efficacious forms of activism.

Paddy Johnson April 17, 2015 at 2:35 pm

Well, nobody’s talking about the pipeline issue, so that at least is changing.

Emily Falvey April 17, 2015 at 4:17 pm

You’re right, of course! I’m sure most people didn’t even know about it before now.

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