The art world reacts to climate change protesters gluing themselves to masterpieces

Although they share their environmental concerns, many disapprove of methods that endanger precious artworks

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A recent spate of protests in German galleries has put climate activists back in headlines, after the frame of a priceless Peter Paul Rubens painting was damaged when Letzte Generation members glued their hands to the artwork.

It all started on June 29, when art student Hannah Bright, 20, travelled to Glasgow's Kelvingrove Art Gallery and glued her hand to the frame of Horatio McCulloch's My Heart’s In The Highlands.

It was the first in a wave of similar acts carried out by Just Stop Oil, a youth group that are calling on the UK government to stop all new fossil fuel projects. Demonstrators say they are targeting the art world as they feel it's not doing enough to reduce its environmental impact, but also that the acts draw public attention to their cause.

Since then, several similar protests from various groups have taken place across Europe, but the reaction has been divisive, particularly within the arts.

"It seems to me a shame that the protesters are prepared to risk damaging some of our most valuable cultural treasures to make their point," says Bendor Grosvenor, an art historian specialising in the Old Masters and co-host of the BBC's Britain's Lost Masterpieces. "There must be more appropriate targets they can choose."

Cristina O'Hanlon, a former Abu Dhabi resident who runs an effort art residency in London's Soho, agrees. "What's frustrating is that I'm a big advocate for climate action, but I think these actions irritate people more than inspire action from the government or the public, and the story of their cause gets lost."

The use of artworks to push messages of social change is nothing new. In 1914, Mary Richardson, a well-known activist for women's voting rights, walked into the National Gallery in London with a meat cleaver and cut Diego Valiasquez's Rokeby Venus. Richardson was protesting against the arrest of fellow suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst and ended up spending six months in prison.

In 1974, gallerist Tony Shafrazi spray-painted "Kill Lies All" on Guernica by Pablo Picasso at New York's Museum of Modern Art. It is thought his actions were in protest against president Richard Nixon’s pardon, the previous day, of William Calley, who was convicted of killing hundreds of unarmed South Vietnamese civilians in the My Lai massacre.

More than 10 years later, unemployed Londoner Robert Cambridge took a sawn-off shotgun to the National Gallery and shot at Leonardo da Vinci's Virgin and Child with St Anne and John the Baptist. He told police the shooting was intended to show his outrage at "political, social and economic conditions in Britain".

After the most recent protests, Olaf Zimmermann, managing director of the German Cultural Council, told the Associated Press the acts were “clearly wrong”.

“The risk of damaging the artworks is very high,” he said. “The works put in danger are part of world cultural heritage and deserve to be protected as well as our climate.”

But activists are adamant they’re not setting out to damage such valuable works, saying they’ve consulted with art restoration experts on how to carry out their actions without causing harm.

Sculptor Lydia Smith, who lives in London, is concerned — damage or no damage — such aggressive acts will only put people off. "I fear these dramatic actions are necessary to get the press coverage," she says, "but I also fear that the average person and the institutions they want to win over might only see them as disruptive and violent."

After three weeks of Just Stop Oil protests in March and April this year, surveys of 2,000 people in the UK showed a marked change in awareness and willingness to act.

Social Change Lab, an organisation that conducts research on protest movements, surveyed respondents before and after the actions and revealed that awareness of the climate crisis had increased 63 per cent, although Dr Ben Kenward, a professor who assisted with the research, said there was no evidence of a correlation.

Heidi Pearce, an artist and Art Liaison for StART art fair, an event held at the Saatchi Gallery in London, says: "I don't fully respect the protesters' tactic, but I completely understand why it was necessary to spread their message that the government should be accountable.”

“These protests made me think about how the art industry should be accountable, too.”

It’s a view shared widely across the industry — that the art world has a long way to go in addressing climate change concerns, from the shipping of artworks to materials used for major commissions.

“We’re so used to seeing things in a particular way,” Nora Razian, head of exhibitions at the Jameel Arts Centre, recently told The National. “We need to shift the image of climate change. It’s a crisis of the imagination.”

Nikki Nita Ramirez, curator and founder of Danuser & Ramirez gallery, which is opening this month in London, believes protests such as those by Just Stop Oil and Ultima Generazione can only help. "Without something as radical as this to get through to people in the age of social media and ever-shorter attention spans, a conversation about climate change is difficult to start," she says.

"As someone with a degree in conservation, I'm trained to preserve great works of art for future generations, but without action taken in our lifetime to address climate change, there won't be anyone left to enjoy art."

Earlier this year, as these protests were taking place in the UK, the country experienced record high temperatures, with wildfires raging in the south and elsewhere in Europe. As temperatures climbed in mid-July, Britain’s high court ordered the government to lay out a plan for how it would reach the national net-zero emissions goals it set in 2019. A few days later, the UN General Assembly declared access to a sustainable environment a universal human right.

"The majority of people I speak to in my outreach are really concerned about the climate crisis but feel disempowered because there's no political action," says Bright, reflecting on public sentiment in the UK.

It’s a complicated topic, one with much nuance that many in the art world aren’t even willing to comment on. For this article, The National reached out to London’s National Gallery and the Victoria & Albert Museum, and both declined to comment. Elsewhere, Courtauld Gallery, Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, the Royal Academy, Serpentine Gallery and the Uffizi Gallery didn’t respond.

"I care about art really deeply and want to protect it and our cultural heritage and history,” Bright says. “But we can't protect art if we don't protect the planet — art simply won't exist if the planet is burning."

There are other ways to go about it, though, Corina Rogge, the American Institute of Conservation, told Artnet News. “Museums can amplify voices of these activists if they give us a chance to work with them. We are co-operative in our need to address the climate change crisis.

“There are different ways to engage with us rather than gluing one’s hand to a frame.”

Updated: September 02, 2022, 12:31 PM