Timothy Martin and Joanna Smith face up to $250,000 in fines and five years in prison. (photo via Declare Emergency on Twitter )

The two climate activists who smeared paint on Edgar Degas’s “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen” (1878–1881) at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, earlier this spring have been indicted. Timothy Martin and Joanna Smith were taken into custody Friday, May 27 and charged with conspiracy to commit an offense against the United States and injury to an exhibit in the National Gallery. The federal charges carry penalties of up to $250,000 in fines and five years in prison.

The 53-year-old activists turned themselves in Friday morning when the indictment was unsealed by the United States District Court for the District of Columbia.

Around 11am on April 27, Martin and Smith entered the National Gallery with water bottles filled with paint and covered the plexiglass case and wooden pedestal of Degas’s “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen” with red and black pigment. The climate advocacy group Declare Emergency took responsibility for the action.

Martin and Smith announced their motives as they sat in front of the famous sculpture. “We need our leaders to take serious action, to tell us the truth about what’s happening with the climate,” they said. “Our first job is to protect our children and future children.” A video of the incident was captured by Washington Post reporters, who were alerted to the forthcoming action. Martin can be seen hitting the plexiglass case as he uses his hands to distribute the black paint.

Police arrested Martin and Smith. The museum closed the exhibition gallery for the rest of the day and removed “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen” from view.

The National Gallery’s Chief of Communications Anabeth Guthrie told Hyperallergic that although no damage to Degas’s sculpture was visible to the naked eye, the famous work did in fact sustain injuries. Guthrie explained that vibrations from the hits to the plexiglass and the subsequent movement of the sculpture from the gallery incurred microscopic and cumulative damage.

“‘Little Dancer Aged Fourteen’ is an inherently fragile figure,” Guthrie said, adding that the work’s complex composition (wood, clay, rope, paintbrushes, padding material, and wire, assembled over a lead armature and covered by a thin skin of beeswax) makes it “especially vulnerable.”

“Going forward, ‘Little Dancer Aged Fourteen’ will require regular, extensive monitoring to observe any change in the cracks or other elements of her composition,” Guthrie said. The National Gallery placed the sculpture back on display on May 8.

The indictment states that the damage totaled $2,400. Martin and Smith’s trial date does not appear publicly available. Declare Emergency has not responded to Hyperallergic‘s immediate request for comment.

Activists have occasionally faced harsh punishment in the wake of last year’s barrage of climate actions involving art historical treasures. Two protestors who targeted Johannes Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” (1665) in the Netherlands were sentenced to two months in prison in November. Last month, Italy’s culture minister proposed a new law carrying five-figure fines for cultural vandalism. However, the threat of legal action hasn’t put an end to the protests: Last week, protestors poured vegetable charcoal into Rome’s Trevi Fountain to dye it black.

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.

One reply on “Climate Activists Who Targeted Degas “Dancer” Indicted”

  1. It would be more effective if they walked though the streets naked and painted.

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