Timothy Martin and Joanna Smith, the two protestors who in late April smeared paint on the protective case and base of an Edgar Degas sculpture at the National Gallery of Art (NGA) in Washington, DC, face up to five years in prison and fines of up to $250,000 each.
The two protestors have both been charged with conspiring to commit an offense against the US and causing injury to NGA property. Charges were filed by Cameron A. Tepfer from the US Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia. Martin, a resident of North Carolina, and Smith, a resident of New York, both surrendered themselves on Friday (26 May).
“The National Gallery of Art appreciates the excellent and swift work by the US Park Police, the FBI and the US Attorney’s Office to bring these serious criminal charges,” a spokesperson for the NGA said in a statement.
In the 27 April protest, Martin and Smith daubed the display case containing the 1880 wax sculpture La petite danseuse de quatorze ans (Little Dancer Aged Fourteen) with red and black paint before sitting in protest in front of it. They were quickly handcuffed and detained.
The group Declare Emergency, which has staged various actions and protests around Washington, DC, calling for more urgent changes to address climate change, took responsibility for the action.
“The Little Dancer is a depiction of a vulnerable 14 year old girl who worked at the Paris Opera. Degas’ depiction of her is beautiful and has been viewed by millions, but the Little Dancer seemingly disappeared after she posed for Degas,” says a statement posted to Declare Emergency’s Instagram page. “Like the Little Dancer, millions of little girls and boys won’t have a future because our leaders didn’t act decades ago when they should have and continue to drag their feet to stop the fossil fueled climate catastrophe that is engulfing us all.”
The protest targeting the NGA’s Degas sculpture was the first high-profile incident at a US museum of a type of climate protest that has occurred with some frequency at British and European museums since spring 2022. Those protests have tended to involve activists glueing themselves to the frames of famous paintings or throwing substances onto their protective glass.
While no works have been seriously damaged by these protests, the International Council of Museums (ICOM) has stated its opposition to all climate activism protests that target art. In a statement, ICOM has said protestors “severely underestimate the fragility” of works on and that museums should be “key actors in initiating and supporting climate action”.
The US Attorney’s Office alleges that Martin and Smith’s protest caused approximately $2,400 in damage. The Degas sculpture was taken off display for ten days while repairs were made.