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Climate activist who defaced Edgar Degas sculpture exhibit sentenced

Joanna Smith was sentenced today for defacing the case of Edgar Degas' <em>Little Dancer</em> sculpture in 2023.
National Gallery of Art
Joanna Smith was sentenced today for defacing the case of Edgar Degas' Little Dancer sculpture in 2023.

A climate activist found guilty of one count of causing injury to a National Gallery of Art exhibit last year for defacing the case around a sculpture by Edgar Degas at the Washington, D.C., museum was sentenced in federal court on Friday.

Joanna Smith, 54, of Brooklyn, N.Y., got 60 days of prison time out of a possible maximum sentence of five years for smearing red and black paint on the case surrounding Degas' Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen on Apr. 27, 2023. The 1881 artwork is on permanent display at the museum.

In addition to the prison term, Judge Amy Berman Jackson ordered Smith to serve 24 months of supervised release and 150 hours of community service, of which 10 hours must involve cleaning graffiti. Smith must pay restitution for the damage to the Degas exhibit in the amount of $4,062, a $3,000 fine, and a court fee. She is also barred from entering the District of Columbia and all museums and monuments for two years. (The maximum sentence could have included anything up to a $250,000 penalty.)

Smith undertook the action with North Carolina-based climate activist Tim Martin. They are members of the climate activism group Declare Emergency.

According to a statement from the D.C. United States Attorney's Office, Smith and Martin specifically targeted the artwork.

"Smith and the co-conspirator passed through security undetected with paint secreted inside water bottles," the statement said. "The duo approached the exhibit, removed the bottles from their bags, and began smearing paint on the case and base."

The statement said the National Gallery had to remove the sculpture from public display for 10 days, and that gallery officials said it cost over $4,000 to repair the damage.

"On April 27, 2023, the protective sanctuary for this beloved girl [Degas' "Little Dancer"] was battered. She is one of the most vulnerable and fragile works in our entire collection. I cannot overemphasize how the violent treatment of her protection barrier, repeated slamming, and vibrations, have forever jeopardized her stability," said Kaywin Feldman, director of the National Gallery of Art, in a statement to NPR. "With increased frequency, institutions – overwhelmingly non-profit museums for the public benefit – have suffered collateral damage at the hands of agendas that have nothing to do with museums or the art attacked. The real damage that these acts of vandalism pose must be taken seriously to deter future incidents that continue to threaten our cultural heritage and historic memory."

"The 'Little Dancer' is a depiction of a vulnerable, 14-year-old girl who worked at the Paris Opera. Degas' depiction of her is beautiful and has been viewed by millions, but the 'Little Dancer' seemingly disappeared after she posed for Degas," said a statement on Declare Emergency's Instagram page explaining the action at the museum last year. "Like the 'Little Dancer,' millions of little girls and boys won't have a future because our leaders didn't act decades ago when they should have and continue to drag their feet to stop the fossil fueled climate catastrophe that is engulfing us all."

Smith and Martin were taken into custody following an indictment. They were charged with conspiracy to commit an offense against the United States and injury to a National Gallery of Art exhibit.

Smith pleaded guilty before U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson in Washington D.C., last December.

Martin's jury trial case is scheduled for Aug. 26.

A cause célèbre

Popularly known as "The Degas Two," Smith and Martin have become a cause célèbre in climate activism circles.

Colleagues from other climate groups have spoken out publicly about the case.

Last June, around 20 members of Extinction Rebellion NYC and Rise and Resist protested the charges against Martin and Smith at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

Extinction Rebellion climate activist Lydia Woolley interrupted a Broadway performance last month, yelling, "Don't forget about Joanna Smith. Don't forget about Tim Martin. Don't forget about the truth tellers. This play doesn't end when you leave the theater."

And more than 1,000 people signed a petition ahead of the sentence hearing urging judge Amy Berman Jackson to show leniency on Smith.

"Smith and Martin placed their hands in water-soluble paint and left their handprints on equipment supporting the Degas sculpture 'Little Dancer,' which portrays a child. They willingly allowed themselves to be arrested for this symbolic act of civil disobedience, which caused no harm to any person and did not result in the destruction or damage of any property," the letter to Jackson accompanying the petition states. "The right to protest in the U.S. and the history of symbolic, nonviolent civil disobedience actions are well-documented. However, these charges and this case appear to disregard past precedents and respond to these recent acts in an excessively severe manner."

Increasing penalties

Penalties against climate protest have been increasing over the past couple of years — and not just in the U.S.

Last year, for instance, two protesters from the climate activism group Just Stop Oil each received sentences of more than two-and-a-half years for scaling a bridge over the River Thames in southeast England, causing a public nuisance. (Both men ended up serving partial sentences — Morgan was released last December and Decker, this past February.)

And just this week, British physician Sarah Benn, who spent more than a month in jail after a series of climate protests, was suspended by a medical tribunal for misconduct.

In Germany, police launched raids against climate activists with the Letzte Generation (Last Generation) group last year. According to an article in The Washington Post from May 2023, seven suspects "were accused of organizing a fundraising campaign to finance criminal activities, advertising them on their website and collecting at least $1.5 million in donations so far."

Broader implications

Some climate change activism experts are considering how the ratcheting up of penalties against protesters will impact the movement more broadly.

"It is putting people off for sure," said James Özden, the founder of Social Change Lab, a nonprofit that researches climate activism and other social movements. "I think it's meaningful that only a small number of people who are willing and able to take these kinds of risks are taking these kinds of actions."

But Özden also said the severity of governmental pushback could potentially galvanize activists towards taking even more risks.

"Even though the sentences increase, so does people's desire to actually do something about climate change and make a change and try help wherever they can. So I expect people will keep taking these actions because they don't see a viable alternative," he said.

Martin of "The Degas Two" said the inability of many people to grasp the severity of the climate change crisis is the biggest hurdle obstructing the momentum of the climate movement.

"Until the climate and social justice emergencies become more of a clear and present danger to Americans, we won't have nearly the number of supporters we ought to have who are willing to risk arrest," Martin said.

Jennifer Vanasco edited this story.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Corrected: April 29, 2024 at 11:00 PM CDT
An earlier version of this story did not indicate that Joanna Smith was ordered to pay a $3,000 fine on top of the amount of the restitution. NPR was originally told there was only the restitution fee. The story has been corrected here.
Chloe Veltman
Chloe Veltman is a correspondent on NPR's Culture Desk.