Two climate activists headed to a beautiful painting by Monet on display at the National Museum in Sweden on a recent Wednesday morning. They wanted to convey the urgency of the environmental crisis – pollution, global warming and other man-made disasters – that could turn the artist’s beautiful gardens at Giverny into a distant memory. So the young demonstrators followed what became a familiar playbook: gluing a hand to the protective glass of the artwork and smearing it with red paint.
In April, at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, two eco-activists sprayed paint on the case surrounding a 19th-century Degas sculpture, “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen,” drawing pine trees and wrinkled faces on its plinth with red and black paint—symbolic of blood and oil.
Similar scenes unfolded at more than a dozen museums during the last one a year, leaving cultural workers on edge and at a loss for how to prevent climate activists from targeting fragile works of art. Just last weekend, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan was targeted for the second time, as more than 40 activists occupied galleries, silently holding signs that proclaimed “No art on a dead planet.” Meanwhile, the costs for security, preservation and insurance are growing, according to cultural institutions that have experienced attacks.
In some cases they sue the activists for the damages. In February, Viennese prosecutors finished their case against protesters who broke 1915 Klimt painting at the Leopold Museum in black liquid after the protesters agreed to pay about $2,200 in damages for the cost of art handling, cleaning and repairing the gallery wall.
But the director of the museum, Hans-Peter Wipplinger, told The New York Times that Leopold will continue to suffer the financial consequences of the climate protest in November 2022. The museum had to add two more staff to its entrance, which has increased in operation. costs about $32,800, while the price of additional glass protections amounts to about $11,000. Wipplinger also said that insurance costs have “increased markedly” on major paintings that draw crowds.
Cultural institutions try to be proactive when their budgets allow. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, more security has been added to certain exhibits, including the current blockbuster, “Van Gogh’s Cypress Trees.” Lisa Pilosi, head of objects conservation at the Met, said in an interview that every piece of art — more than 40 paintings and prints — is behind protective glass because of concerns about climate activists. (Last year, protesters threw soup at a Van Gogh painting at the National Gallery in London.)
“We used very sophisticated plexiglass because we didn’t want to deal with attacks,” she explained. “But the glass is there to prevent people from touching the works, not to prevent the liquids from dripping.”
Returning a painting to its former glory after attacks can require hours of painstaking conservation work, and expensive glass cannot completely prevent liquids from seeping through the protective barrier.
“We knew something like this could happen,” said Per Hedström, interim director of the National Museum in Sweden. “We started working on a plan last fall.”
Hedström said that his museum is still calculating the cost of damages that the government could claim in prosecuting the activists, who belong to the environmental organization Aterställ Vatmarker (Restore Wetlands).
The number of workers needed to clean a painting like the Monet “is actually quite large,” Hedström said. “We had about 10 or 15 people working for a few days: conservators, press officers, curators.”
But there are limited options for a state museum like his to prevent an attack. “An extreme consequence would be to close the museum,” Hedström said, although that was unrealistic, he admitted, because the collection belongs to the Swedish public. “Activists use the principles of an open society as a vulnerability.”
In what appears to be a tipping point in the United States, prosecutors filed serious federal charges against protesters who threatened the security of art at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, which is a federal institution. Last month, Joanna Smith and Tim Martin, both 53, were charged with conspiring to commit an offense against the United States and damage a National Gallery exhibit after they smeared paint on the case surrounding the delicate beeswax sculpture of “Little Dancer” in April. Each charge carries a statutory maximum penalty of five years in prison and fines of up to $250,000.
Climate activists called the sentence “unfairly harsh”. “It wasn’t a call for everyone to ravage museums,” Smith said in a phone interview, adding that she thought the charges would stifle free speech. “It was a call for people to look deep and think about what they love on Earth and what they can do to protect those things.”
Kaywin Feldman, the director of the National Gallery, said that she appreciated the work done by the authorities “to bring these serious allegations.”
After the attack, nearly two dozen employees worked to clean the gallery, examine the sculpture and repair its display case, which Feldman said suffered about $2,400 worth of damage. The Degas art was removed from the galleries for a total of 13 days. Feldman said conservationists were less concerned about the paint splatters and more concerned about the heavy vibrations caused by the disturbance. The delicate wax body of the sculpture can develop cracks from such movements, which is why the museum rarely moves, and never lends, the artworks. The last time the sculpture was moved was in 2020 for an exhibition.
“People keep saying to me: What the hell does Degas’ ‘Dancer’ have to do with climate change? Of course, the answer is nothing,” Feldman said. “Museums have always been committed to offering the greatest amount of access possible to original works of art and it was part of their founding ethos. It annoys us all to have to put up more and more barriers.”