11/10/2011 06:23 pm ET Updated Jan 09, 2012

SFMOMA's 'The Air We Breathe' Exhibition Addresses Marriage Equality

Art museums are so often understood as sanctuaries in which to preserve the past, so it's rare to experience a museum show instead devoted to understanding the present and shaping the future. SFMOMA's 'The Air We Breathe' seeks to do just that by opening up a dialogue surrounding same-sex marriage through the works of 30 artists.

The controversial subject matter is approached with restraint and grace, but the works still succeed in sparking dialogue and awareness, showing that, as Silicon Valley's Mercury News said of the show, "you don't need to create loud art to make a bold statement."

One depicts two women sitting on a motorcycle with the caption: "You need a civil-rights bill, not me." Poems hang on the walls as well, including a new Ann Waldman prose-poem that begins: "Start from a work of persons of sameness and not the same and rise up not like a veil of unsanctified tears but rise up in sameness a work in love."

SFMOMA director Neal Benezra was careful to clarify that the museum is not making a political statement one way or the other, but simply opening a forum for communication and understanding. Benezra told ArtInfo he was "clear that we’re not advocating a point of view in this and that’s important to me.” Yet this exhibition remains a real accomplishment for SFMOMA, now among the few large museums to tackle current political issues directly.

Artists participating in the show include D-L Alvarez, Simon Fujiwara, Robert Gober, Raymond Pettibon, Amy Sillman, and Allison Smith. The exhibition comes together in a book of the same name, featuring the artworks as well as commentary and poetry by Frank Rich, Eileen Myles, Martha Nussbaum, Langston Hughes, John Ashbery and others.

The organizers of the show have high hopes for its possibilities. Curator Apsara DiQuinzio expressed to ArtInfo: "I believe in art as a powerful tool of communication, that art has the ability to reframe subjects and open them up when they may have been stagnant or contained.”