Interviewsand Articles


Art As Service: When Is a Museum Not a Museum?

by Sam Bower, Nov 30, -1



About the photo: Ahmad Nadalian, the Iranian sculptor, explains, “For the past decade, as a ritual, I have dropped my carved stones into rivers, canals, reservoirs and seas.” For the artist, walking along a riverbank, washing and carving stones “is not only a performance, but also a prayer, an invocation.” Learn more at
 “Green” comes from the Saxon and Proto-Indo-European word for “grow.” From the Greek and Latin, a “museum” was the house or shrine of the Muses. And, “Ecology,” another Greek amalgam refers to the study of home itself. So at the core of, we have growth, inspiration and the study of the spaces that make this all possible.
     The surprise and joy for me these days is that I’m writing this at all. And the gift is that I’m not writing this by myself. I have support and editing wisdom, and the internalized voices of dear, noble friends and colleagues from around the world.
     The nonprofit online museum of environmental art I helped start and run for the past ten years known as took the plunge a few years ago into the fresh adventure of running an organization as an experiment in generosity and as an all-volunteer endeavor with no fundraising. We were inspired in this by the remarkable folks at So we’ve seen it being done, but it’s still very much uncharted territory for all of us. 
     Because of this decision, everything has changed. We’ve had to melt things to the core, as an organization, and in our own lives. As volunteers we do what we’re most drawn to, so planning evolves from product to process. The implications of all this continue to cascade and surprise us.
Old and New
What was once a busy website updated daily with international environmental art events, artist information and essays is now an organization with a more internal and local focus. Our primary activity for the past few years has been meeting and talking, and trying to figure out what’s most needed in the field of art and ecology; what would a sustainable culture look like? How do we embody it? Could it scale? Are we still even a museum? The original board members have moved on and, remarkably, new ones have emerged to take their place. And these new board members don’t fundraise, so they’re much happier.
     We question everything and trust our intuition. All we know is that this path feels right and thankfully people keep showing up encouraging us to continue. We treasure our monthly meetings and admire and love each other fiercely. The uncertainty in this journey fills us with equal measures of joy and the aches of frustration as we grow. We see glimpses of more sustainable paradigms and are reminded of the limitations inherent in an old legacy website. Since we’ve turned in this new direction we’ve done a respectable number of things to be proud of, but largely these have been offline events: talks, publications and, most of all, deep thinking.
     Our primary focus, we’ve decided, is working to embody a notion of art as service to communities and ecosystems. “Will the worms notice?” is a question we often ask ourselves as a way of anchoring our work, of literally bringing it down to earth. What is perhaps most remarkable is that, as an organization, we still exist.
A Dialogue with Museum Directors
We were therefore honored and happily surprised when we were invited by our friends at the Berkeley Art Center to help them co-create an evening for the California Association of Museums this past February—a dinner and dialogue. We accepted and then wondered—but what did we have to offer? And what could fifteen museum directors and curators from throughout the state of California gain from talking with us?
What Do We Have? What Can We Share?
After much discussion, we decided that rather than share accomplishments or pontificate, why not explore some of our own questions? And we could invite everyone to tell their stories and participate in a group discussion about some of the key issues in this field as we see them. We could also show an inspiring video of interviews that we’d never shared before in public. All it needed was a bit of updating to reflect our current values. And how could we bring the spirit of service and generosity right into the room? What about creating handmade gifts for all the participants? Working with our endlessly creative friend Lea Redmond, we came up with something unique.
     While we’ve had several million people visit us online over the years, recently we’ve had very modest resources and accomplishments. And as a small, all-volunteer nonprofit with no actual brick and mortar building, or even an office, we were nervous about the evening. At the same time, we recognized the importance of the questions we were facing and, well, wasn’t that enough?
Thanks to the warm welcome and hard work of Suzanne Tan and her colleagues at the Berkeley Art Center, the evening came together beautifully. The vegetarian-friendly meal was catered, pro bono, by master caterer and artist Tom McKinley. In the gallery room where the event was held, an exhibit was in place of quiet nature-inspired paintings made from natural pigments. Additional support was provided by other notable artist volunteers. Even before we began the discussion and introductory comments by Suzanne, people were excited and smiling.
     We showed the video and people loved it. As host and moderator, Suzanne began with some seed questions and I shared some initial comments to get things going. An informal dialogue followed among the various thoughtful and experienced people at the tables with some guidance by Suzanne, and greenmuseum’s Anne Veh, Zach Pine, Pancho Ramos Stierle and me.
     Anne talked about her work with art that spills beyond the walls and into the realm of science and activism. Her curated project with photographer David Liittschwager involved primary biodiversity research, minimal printing costs and packaging, and one full wall of artworks designed to be given away at the end of the show. This provoked excitement and inspired discussion with the exhibition planning professionals in the audience. “As I listened to you”, said one woman, “all I could do was nod, yes, yes, yes!”
     Then Zach, a former MD, who left his career to specialize in “create with nature” art activities with kids and the public, talked about the ecosystem of support needed to make these projects happen. Bringing the idea to life that each could authentically find ways to serve our communities and ecosystems at any stage of this interconnected network got people even more excited.
     The remarkable Pancho, a former PhD astro-physicist turned meditator, farmer, and community activist shared the spirit of service with the story of a man named Tree and the Free Farm. It’s based in San Francisco, where an urban lot transformed into a farm produces tons of produce that is all given away. And as we ate our delicious dinners during the dialogue, the connection between food and place, service and art was made manifest. One of the deepest ways we can connect with nature is through agriculture and food, and many artists are working in this field to make these interconnections clear and metaphorically rich.
     Interwoven through this, and in my closing remarks, I tried to emphasize the spirit of generosity and the fact that we can all play a part in shifting the way we do our work. Our goal wasn’t to talk about, but to embody and provide examples of the shift in paradigm that we feel is needed if we’re really serious about building a sustainable culture. How can we serve and infuse art and aesthetics, science and activism and have it engage and truly resonate with this larger home it finds itself in? And what important work is being neglected by existing museums and related infrastuctures?
By the end, people were glowing and clearly moved. To close the event, we handed out our handmade gifts, exhibition catalogues (also designed and produced as a gift by friends of the Berkeley Art Center) as well as copies of works & conversations magazine. There was art and information in abundance for all. People were abuzz and described the event as extraordinary. When the bus arrived to whisk people back to their hotel, no one wanted to leave.
     At the very end, a program manager from a major foundation asked about our annual operating budget. When we told him it was well under $10,000, he just shook his head with the biggest smile.
A New Culture
For us, the magic of this event came through the practice of these ideas. It’s really about how we can be—and any accomplishments and ripples are the byproduct. Can we move people enough so they might want to begin shifting the ways they work within their institutions or the contexts they find themselves in? It’s very much a work in progress. But there was a warm glow of possibility that night in Berkeley. The little online museum, contemplating a fresh start and questioning everything, helped seed some important questions. It’s up to us all to nourish the water and sun and soil needed to sustain this spirit of inquiry and innovation. We all have a role to play in the creation of a new culture. And we have the opportunity to invite others to share this journey with us. Even the simplest story shared with love can make all the difference. And we can’t do any of it alone. In fact, the more you think about it, there’s no such thing as doing or growing alone. The museum is all around us. 

About the Author

Sam Bower is the founding director of and a contributing editor for works & conversations


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