LONDON — From Claude Monet to Andy Warhol, several of the world’s greatest artists have had their masterpieces targeted this year by protesters seeking to draw global attention to the climate change emergency. Now, art galleries are pushing back.
“In recent weeks, there have been several attacks on works of art in international museum collections. The activists responsible for them severely underestimate the fragility of these irreplaceable objects, which must be preserved as part of our world cultural heritage,” they said.
The 92 signatories said in a statement issued by the German National Committee of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) that museum directors were increasingly “frustrated” and had been “deeply shaken” by the endangerment of the art.
“Museums are places where people from a wide variety of backgrounds can engage in dialogue and which therefore enable social discourse,” the statement added. “We will continue to advocate for direct access to our cultural heritage. And we will maintain the museum as a free space for social communication.”
The International Council of Museums (ICOM) is a global organization with individual national committees in over 100 countries. ICOM issued a later statement that said it wanted museums to be seen as “allies” against the common threat of climate change and to “acknowledge and share both the concerns expressed by museums regarding the safety of collections and the concerns of climate activists as we face an environmental catastrophe that threatens life on Earth.”
The protests in galleries have so far not caused any permanent damage to the iconic pieces, which are mostly encased in protective glass, although some museums have reported minor damage.
The protests have dotted the globe in recent months.
In Australia, climate protesters scrawled blue graffiti on Warhol’s Campbell’s soup can art in Canberra. The climate action group Stop Fossil Fuel Subsidies wrote on Twitter, “The art was not damaged,” and urged the Australian government to reduce its carbon emissions.
Johannes Vermeer’s “Girl With a Pearl Earring,” a 17th-century masterpiece, was targeted in the Netherlands last month but is back on display.
In Italy, climate protesters glued themselves to Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli “Primavera” at the Uffizi museum in Florence, while in Germany, protesters from the group Last Generation doused Monet’s “Les Meules” with mashed potatoes as they criticized the government’s fossil fuel extraction.
The groups have made similar arguments to justify their actions. The Uffizi protesters, for instance, said that “if the climate collapses, the entire civilization as we know it collapses. There will be no more tourism, no museums, no art.”
In response to this week’s coordinated statement from museums, a spokesperson for the U.K.-based climate action group Just Stop Oil told The Washington Post on Friday that “art and the public gallery is a contested place, it does not exist and cannot exist outside of the wider debate and arguments taking place in society.” The spokesperson added, “Ending new oil and gas is a demand that needs to be made both inside and outside the gallery.”
Just Stop Oil protesters made global headlines last month when they threw tomato soup on Vincent van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” at London’s National Gallery but did not damage the 19th-century painting, estimated to be worth $84.2 million, which was encased in a protective glass.
The high-profile stunts align with other climate protests in recent years that have sought to disrupt daily life in increasingly unexpected ways.
Dana Fisher, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland who studies protest movements, previously told The Post that such “tactical innovation” and new strategies gain media attention but don’t always “work to change minds and hearts.”
Some in the public have hailed the protesters as “heroes” and said galleries were “missing the point” by not supporting them. Others, however, have called for increased security at museums and deemed the acts “vandalism.”
A separate body, the U.S.-based Association of Art Museum Directors, last week also issued a statement in response to climate activists’ “attacks” on artworks, stating that the incidents “cannot be justified” regardless of motivation. “Such protests are misdirected, and the ends do not justify the means,” the organization said.
The rare joint action from museums comes as world leaders, among them President Biden, gather in Egypt at the United Nations’ annual climate change summit, known as COP27, to discuss solutions to the ongoing climate emergency.
Biden requested more than $11 billion to help developing countries adapt to the devastating effects of climate change and build greener economies in his $5.8 trillion budget plan released in March, but it is unclear whether Congress will deliver anywhere near that amount.
Meanwhile, on Friday, a major study warned that nations will probably burn through their remaining carbon budget in the next nine years if they do not significantly reduce greenhouse gas pollution — making it all but impossible for nations to meet the Paris agreement goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.
Shannon Osaka contributed to this report.
A previous version of this article incorrectly attributed a statement from museum and gallery representatives to the International Council of Museums (ICOM). The statement was issued by that organization's German National Committee. The article has been corrected and updated with a later statement from the ICOM.