Climate protesters charged for damaging National Gallery of Art exhibit

The two climate protesters who smeared paint on the case and base of Edgar Degas’ “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen” in the National Gallery of Art on April 27 were arrested Friday.

Timothy Martin of North Carolina and Joanna Smith of New York, both 53, were charged with conspiracy to commit an offense against the United States and injury to a National Gallery of Art exhibit.

According to the indictment, Martin and Smith had planned to injure the exhibit when they entered the National Gallery and brought plastic water bottles filled with paint. The indictment outlines how they handed their phones to co-conspirators before smearing paint on the case and base of the sculpture’s exhibit, at times smacking the glass case. Washington Post reporters alerted about the attack filmed and photographed the offense.

In a Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2011 file photo, Edgar Degas “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen” is displayed at Christie’s auction house, in New York. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

The U.S. Attorney’s Office said in a news release the “Little Dancer” was explicitly targeted for her fragility. The sculpture’s materials include human hair, silk and linen ribbon that is over 100 years old.

Smith and Martin caused approximately $2,400 in damage, and the exhibit was removed from public display for 10 days for repairs, according to the indictment. The Washington Post reported that it’s staff reporters were initially subjected to a potential arrest but, after speaking with attorneys, they were not detained. District police have not commented on the report.

Each charge carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison and up to a $250,000 fine, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. The office also said the investigation is being led by the FBI’s Washington Field Office, specifically the FBI’s Art Crime Team.

A group called Declare Emergency claimed credit for the attack. The same climate group has blocked roadways around the Washington, D.C., area over the past year, including the Third Street Tunnel in April.

The protesters are calling for President Biden to declare a formal state of climate emergency and said the sculpture was damaged to highlight “insufficient action on the climate emergency.”

“Today, in non-violent rebellion, we have temporarily sullied a piece of art to evoke the real children whose suffering is guaranteed if the death-cult fossil fuel companies keep removing new coal, oil, and gas from the ground. As a parent, I cannot abide this future,” 53-year-old Joanna Smith said. “This little dancer is protected in her climate controlled box, but people, animals and ecosystems currently struggling and dying in extreme weather events are not.”

Climate protesters have been targeting pieces of art, mostly in Europe, since 2022.

Kaywin Feldman, Director of the National Gallery of Art, condemned the attack in a statement.

“We unequivocally denounce this physical attack on one of our works of art and will continue to share information as it becomes available,” Feldman said. “The safety and security of our staff and visitors and of our collection remain our highest priority.”


Emily Venezky

Emily Venezky is a digital writer/editor at WTOP. Emily grew up listening to and reading local news in Los Angeles, and she’s excited to cover stories in her chosen home of the DMV. She recently graduated from The George Washington University, where she studied political science and journalism.

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