Prison sentence for climate activist who targeted US National Gallery of Art’s Degas statue

A climate activist who smeared paint on the protective case and pedestal of the Edgar Degas sculpture La Petite Danseuse de quatorze ans (Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, 1880) at the National Gallery of Art (NGA) in Washington, DC, nearly exactly a year ago has been sentenced to 60 days in prison. Joanna Smith, one of the two protesters involved in the 27 April 2023 action, pleaded guilty in December to one count of “causing injury” to an NGA exhibit. She had faced up to five years in prison and a fine of as much as $250,000.

In addition to her prison sentence, Smith was ordered by US District Judge Amy Berman Jackson to serve two years of supervised release—during which time she is barred from entering the District of Columbia and from visiting any monument or museum in the US—and required her to serve 150 hours of community service (at least ten of which must be spent cleaning graffiti). Smith has also been ordered to pay restitution for the damage caused to the Degas exhibit, said to be over $4,000. (The sculpture was removed from display for ten days following the protest.)

“The vandalism committed on 27 April 2023 against a priceless, irreplaceable and fragile sculpture challenges the universal idea that museums matter,” Kaywin Feldman, the NGA’s director, said in a statement. The Degas sculpture “is one of the most vulnerable and fragile works in our entire collection. I cannot overemphasise how the violent treatment of her protection barrier, repeated slamming and vibrations, have forever jeopardised her stability.”

Smith, who lives in Brooklyn, New York, and her fellow protester Timothy Martin, who is based in North Carolina, travelled to Washington last spring and, on 27 April 2023, entered the NGA with bottles of red and black paint that they then opened and smeared on the Degas sculpture’s base and protective case. Smith and Martin, both supporters of the climate group Declare Emergency, were charged with injury to an NGA exhibit and conspiracy to commit an offense against the United States. Subsequently, around 20 activists from the groups Extinction Rebellion and Rise & Resist staged a solidarity protest around a Degas statue at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, calling the charges “unjustifiably harsh”.

Martin is due to go on trial in August before Judge Berman Jackson on charges of conspiracy to commit a crime against the US and injury to an NGA exhibit.

Museums around the world, especially in Europe and the UK, have been targeted by climate protesters seeking to call attention to the worsening environmental emergency in recent years. Protesters have splashed paintings with soup or cake, glued their hands to frames, taken hammers to protective glass and more. In the US, the NGA has been targeted repeatedly. In addition to Smith and Martin’s action, this past November another activist affiliated with Declare Emergency used red paint to smear the words “Honor Them” next to Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s Shaw 54th Regiment Memorial (1900); in February, he was arrested and charged with damage to NGA property.

“With increased frequency, institutions—overwhelmingly non-profit museums for the public benefit—have suffered collateral damage at the hands of agendas that have nothing to do with museums or the art attacked,” Feldman added. “The real damage that these acts of vandalism pose must be taken seriously to deter future incidents that continue to threaten our cultural heritage and historic memory.”

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