The idea of a museum-based climate protest was essentially a new invention this year, but one that quickly gained traction around the world. In the United States, Tim Martin and Joanna Smith were the first to make a splash, standing before the “The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer” bronze cast by Edgar Degas at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
The two activists from Declare Emergency were subsequently indicted on federal conspiracy charges for committing an offense against the U.S. Government and causing injury to the art. Their charges carry a maximum fine of $500,000 and 10 years in prison…although as solidarity organization Extinction Rebellion pointed out, they applied children’s paint to the glass case only at a maximized total cost of $2400, while there was no actual damage to the sculpture itself.
Using the hashtag #FreeTheDegasTwo, Extinction Rebellion and other organizations believe that the criminalization of protestors at museums is excessive, and far more draconian than the lack of crackdown on fossil fuel companies perpetuating climate disaster.
“Their indictment is not based on their actions, but on their motivations,” Stu Waldman, an organizer with Rise & Resist, said in a press release. “It is an indictment of intimidation rather than a pursuit of justice.”
“If our government still possesses any remnants of democracy, it must not permit climate criminals to elude accountability, while simultaneously punishing citizens who dare to challenge their wrongdoing—citizens who themselves are victims of the actions of these climate criminals,” added Georgia B. Smith of Extinction Rebellion.
As a result, Extinction Rebellion staged three protests this summer, a rallying cry across the United States to show solidarity and expose the injustice.
The first was on Friday, June 7th at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, where Extinction Rebellion LA staged a solidarity demonstration in front of another casting of Degas’ same figure, called “The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer.” Yet another Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer by Degas at the Metropolitan Museum of Art was the venue for a New York protest by the same organization on Saturday, June 24th at 11:30 am, where 20 activists were careful not to touch any art as they continued to decry injustice. They followed up with a second Metropolitan Museum demonstration with a total of 40 activists on Saturday, July 8th, shutting down over eight exhibits.
They taped their mouths with buzzwords and painted their palms the same color as the DC activists, reminding viewers of the earth’s deterioration in the face of rising temperatures, and the powerlessness yet intensity of saying nothing. No art pieces were touched or harmed.
Shayok Mukhopadhyay of Extinction Rebellion called out the museum for its lack of climate-conscious exhibits. In Vienna, the Leopold responded to protest discourse with Letzte Generation activist Florian Hensel by staging an exhibition totally around warming temperatures, while plenty of other showcases locally and worldwide are raising questions through art.
New York is slower.
“While it may have been acceptable in the 20th century, The Met displays its complacency by featuring Karl Lagerfeld as its main exhibit. This trivial pursuit is reminiscent of Nero fiddling while Rome burned,” Mukhopadhyay said, “The institution is more focused on preserving the status quo of influence and wealth, showcasing its vast resources and Van Goghs, while neglecting the urgent issues at hand.”
Museums make for a powerful platform to discuss wealth gaps and injustice. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in particular has faced backlash across categories, with a notable protest led by artist Nan Goldin the Sackler Wing, successfully challenging the Sackler family’s proliferation of the opioid crisis and the use of their funds for arts and culture. Further demonstrations against Southeast Asian art this year have exposed cracks in the antiquities trade. But one thing all three causes have in common is the chasm between money and justice.
On the other hand, art is a powerful mechanism for discourse. Martin and Smith selected the 14-year-old model by Degas to address the fear for the next generation of children, and certainly, her defiant stance and the permanence of the bronze provide an important foundation for these larger questions of survival.
“Integrity requires upholding values through action, not mere words, to preserve and safeguard our cherished treasures (including nature), for reflection and social discourse,” says the press release.
“The climate crisis has already surpassed its equivalent of a ‘Pearl Harbor’ event. It is severe, urgent, and calls for a response comparable to a wartime mobilization from all sectors of society. Cultural institutions are not exempt from this responsibility,” said Jack Baldwin of Extinction Rebellion. “In World War II, museums played a crucial role in educating the public, boosting morale, and supporting military efforts.”
A final summer protest took place at Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum on July 22nd in the wax Oval Office, directly calling out the Biden Administration for failing to make good on its promise to reverse fossil fuel development, and demanding we declare a climate emergency.
To support the #FreeTheDegasTwo campaign, Extinction Rebellion urges the public to sign the petition calling on the Assistant U.S. District Attorney Cameron A. Tepfer to drop the charges against Joanna Smith and Tim Martin. Of their goal of 10,000 signatures, they had only 1391 as of August 1st.