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A climate activist who smeared red and black paint on the case of Edgar Degas’s iconic ballerina sculpture has pleaded guilty to one count of “causing injury” to the exhibit at the National Gallery of Art (NGA) in Washington, DC. Joanna Smith entered her plea on 15 December at US District Court, according to a Department of Justice press release. She faces a maximum prison sentence of five years and could be fined up to $250,000.

The incident in question took place on 27 April, when Smith and a fellow climate activist named Timothy Martin entered the NGA with water bottles filled with paint, “approached the exhibit, removed the bottles from their bags and began smearing paint on the case and base” of Degas’s La petite danseuse de quatorze ans (Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, 1880), notes the press release.

“Smith delivered statements telling onlookers why she was undertaking the action as paint dripped from the exhibit onto the surrounding floor,” the announcement continues, adding that the pair “had conducted research on the piece and specifically targeted it. Before entering the National Gallery, the duo recorded video statements explaining their intent.”

The NGA removed the sculpture from its galleries for ten days in order to repair the damage, which cost more than $4,000. (The museum had previously reported a cost of $2,400.) In May, Smith and Martin were each charged with “conspiracy to commit an offence against the United States and injury to a National Gallery of Art exhibit”.

“The National Gallery of Art appreciates the efforts of the US Attorney’s Office and the FBI in handling this serious act of vandalism,” a spokesperson for the NGA said in a statement in response to Smith’s plea.

While climate activists have recently targeted many famous works of art in European and British museums (involving canned soup on a Van Gogh, mashed potatoes on a Monet, cake on the Mona Lisa and people glueing themselves to frames), the April incident marked the first high-profile action of this type at a US museum. In their protest as part of the group Declare Emergency, Smith and Martin attempted to make a connection between the girl portrayed in the Degas sculpture and the children of a future of climate catastrophe.

Climate protest

Climate activists, protesting against federal charges against their colleagues, rally at the Metropolitan Museum

After charges were brought against the pair, there was a demonstration at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in protest, as fellow climate activists found the charges “unjustifiably harsh”. Meanwhile in Congress, earlier this month, the Ohio senator J.D. Vance (of Hillbilly Elegy fame) introduced a bill called the Consequences for Climate Vandals Act; if passed, it would “double the statutory maximum prison sentence for damaging art or other property on the grounds of the National Gallery of Art, the Smithsonian museums, the Kennedy Center and other properties”.

Smith’s sentencing is scheduled for 3 April 2024. Martin told the Washington Post that he would reject a plea deal and plans to go to trial next year.

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