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Climate protesters charged with smearing paint on enclosure housing Degas sculpture in DC

Two climate activists have been indicted by a federal grand jury following a protest in April that included paint stains on the casing protecting Edgar Degas’ ‘Little Dancer Aged Fourteen’ sculpture at the National Gallery of Art , the US Attorney’s Office in Washington announced on Friday.

The climate activists – identified in the recently unsealed indictment as Timothy Martin and Joanna Smith – surrendered to authorities on Friday on two counts related to conspiracy and damage to property of the National Gallery of Art, according to a press release from federal prosecutors. Each charge carries a maximum of five years in prison and up to $250,000 in fines.

At the time of the incident, the climate group that organized the stunt, Declare Emergency, identified the protesters as Smith, 53, from New York, and Martin, 54, from Raleigh, North Carolina.

Federal authorities allege Smith and Martin concealed paint in plastic water bottles before smearing it on the casing, base and floor surrounding the sculpture, resulting in $2,400 in damages. The gallery had to remove the exhibit for repairs afterwards, according to a press release.

The indictment also accuses Martin and Smith of working with unknown co-conspirators to enact a plan, which included searching for “potential targets” at the National Gallery of Art, informing “at least one member of the media of their plans and documenting Smith and Martin smearing paint.

Following the incident, Kaywin Feldman, the director of the National Gallery of Art, released a statement condemning the protest.

“We unequivocally denounce this physical attack on one of our artworks and will continue to share information as it becomes available,” Feldman said in the statement.

Lawyers representing Smith and Martin said their clients never sought to damage the artwork, but instead hoped to use the art to draw attention to the climate crisis.

“It wasn’t about trying to destroy priceless art. It was not about trying to damage federal government property,” said Phil Andonian, an attorney representing Smith. “It was really about getting a vital message out to the audience and amplifying it.”

Mark Goldstone, an attorney representing Martin, called the protest both a “provocative tactic” and “non-violent civil disobedience.”

On April 27, two members of the climate activist group Declare Emergency coated the casing of the “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen” statue with paint. (Video: John Farrell, Jackson Barton/The Washington Post)

On April 27, Martin and Smith approached the sculpture and used paint to draw images at the base. Smith used red paint to draw what appeared to be a burning tree, while Martin used black paint to draw a house and a cloud.

The couple sat cross-legged in front of the sculpture, held out their paint-covered hands to gallery visitors who had stopped to see the commotion and explained they were doing it because of the climate crisis.

“That’s why we decided to come and visit this beautiful, beloved child that the world knows,” Smith said at the time. “She’s flawed like we’re all flawed, but she’s strong and she’s not resigned to destruction.”

The paint smear at the gallery follows protests around the world where climate activists have targeted galleries and museums to draw attention to global warming.

“These protests around the world are designed to have a visceral emotional impact on people and engage them emotionally,” Goldstone said. “And the goal is to push people to face a global emergency.”


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