A climate activist charged with smearing paint on a case containing an Edgar Degas sculpture in the National Gallery of Art last spring pleaded guilty in federal court Friday to injuring museum property.
Another activist charged in the case said he would decline a plea deal and is expected to go to trial next year.
In April, protesters identified at the time as Joanna Smith, 53, of New York, and Tim Martin, 54, of Raleigh, N.C., smeared paint on the case protecting Degas’s 1881 sculpture “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen” in the National Gallery.
A statement released by the climate group Declare Emergency on the day of the protest, and credited to Smith, said that “leaders are making decisions antithetical to life, health, and security.”
“Today, in nonviolent 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,” the statement said. “As a parent, I cannot abide this future.”
Federal authorities alleged Smith and Martin concealed paint in plastic water bottles before smearing it on the case, base and floor surrounding the sculpture, resulting in $2,400 in damages. The gallery had to remove the exhibit for repairs afterward, according to a news release from prosecutors.
On Friday, Smith pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Washington to injuring museum property. Under federal advisory sentencing guidelines, prosecutors calculated an appropriate prison term in Smith’s case to be 34 months while defense attorneys calculated it to be six months, according to the plea agreement. Judge Amy Berman Jackson, who scheduled sentencing for April 3, will decide what punishment to impose.
In an email, Philip Andonian, Smith’s attorney, said: “We are glad we were able to resolve this matter.”
“As we have made clear from the beginning, Joanna has a deep respect and appreciation for the arts and had absolutely no intention whatsoever of causing harm to the Degas sculpture,” the email said. “She was there simply to make an important point about our climate crisis. We hope the court will understand that at sentencing.”
Martin, who was arrested with Smith, said in a telephone interview that he planned to go to trial next year.
“I’m just curious of what a trial by jury would be like when we’re talking about the … end-of-the-world climate emergency and they want to treat it like damage of museum property,” he said. “I’m just curious to see if they’ll ignore this looming crisis.”
Donald Zepada, a spokesperson for Declare Emergency, said Smith and Martin’s protest had inspired others as the group seeks to have President Biden declare a climate emergency.
“As far as what they do with their cases, that’s up to the individual,” he said. “We don’t push people to do a trial or take a plea. We want people to do what’s best for them.”
Climate protesters in Washington have defaced galleries at least three times this year.
After Smith and Martin’s action, three protesters who said they were affiliated with Declare Emergency were arrested at the National Museum of Natural History after one glued themselves to a sign and others climbed into an exhibit. And last month, a climate protester was arrested at the National Gallery of Art after vandalizing a wall near a Civil War exhibit, officials said.
Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) has introduced the Consequences for Climate Vandals Act, which, if enacted, would increase penalties for damaging art or other property at National Gallery of Art and other Washington museums.
“There should be no tolerance for the vandalization of our historic works of art,” Vance said in a statement. “Apparently, a maximum penalty of five years in prison isn’t enough to keep these far-left protesters from tarnishing displays of cultural significance. Let’s make it ten years and see if they’re still so bold.”