Activism on art – what’s going on and what you can do about it?

DATE:01ST FEB 2023

Political activists seeking publicity have taken to attacking significant artworks, with the most recent incident at the Art Gallery of WA.

As a gallerist or museum curator how can you prepare for the possibility of a similar attack?

Perpetrators typically identify artworks with enough cachet to go viral, attracting broad media coverage for their cause. The disruption is almost entirely by environmental activism groups, including Just No Oil and Last Generation. 

Protestors seem to carefully choose artworks that were glazed so that they don’t destroy them, just cause enough of a disruption to make the evening news.

Although, in some cases there has been damage to frames and two outside sculptures have also been targeted.

Affected institutions have generally played down the events, emphasising that the artworks have quickly been cleaned and put back on display, and not obviously reacting with changes to standard operating procedures other than perhaps bumping up security in exhibition spaces.

What can you do about it?

Despite the attacks being rare, and currently targeting only well-known artworks in large collections, good collection management practice suggests there have been enough to justify being prepared.

Julian Bickersteth, CEO at International Conservation Services, suggests that organisations begin by identifying any likely targets in their collection; at the Art Gallery of WA an iconic Fred McCubbin was attacked.

If practical, consider glazing the artwork, and highlight to your staff any artworks which might be vulnerable during opening hours.

Then consider updating your organisation’s Business Continuity Plan and Collection Disaster Preparedness plans to include the potential impact of activism.

Such plans should address the likelihood and impact of activism and appropriate risk mitigation strategies. These plans should also include collection management/conservation response procedures to ensure the minimisation of any potential change in condition and prompt conservation assessment and treatment.

Timeline of recent incidents

  Date Venue, artwork, motivation  
1 Jan 19 2023 Art Gallery of WA, Perth – protestors ‘Disrupt Burrup Hub’ branded the (recently installed) Perspex cover of Frederick McCubbin’s Down on his luck (1899) and glued hand to the wall. Artwork undamaged.
2 Nov 18 2022 Paris - protesters in Paris poured orange paint directly onto a silver Charles Ray sculpture outside the Bourse de Commerce contemporary art space. (A Bourse de Commerce spokesperson said the sculpture was cleaned within hours.) 
3 Nov 15 2022 Leopold Museum, Vienna- members of a group called Last Generation walked into the museum and threw black liquid at one of Klimt’s major works, “Death and Life. The museum event was sponsored by OMV, an oil and gas company. The activists chose this date for their protest precisely because OMV continues to drill for new oil, even locally. They believe it cannot sustain.
4 Nov 9 2022 NGA, Canberra - two women protesters fled after trying to glue themselves to the frame of Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup 1.  
5 Oct 30 2022 Palazzo Bonaparte, Rome – Van Gogh 'The Sower' 1888 threw pea soup - was exhibited behind glass and undamaged (on loan from Kroller-Muller Museum in the Netherlands).  Protesters from the same group, the Last Generation.
6 Oct 24 2022 Museum Barbarini, Potsdam – German environmentalists threw mashed potatoes and glued themselves to a Claude Monet Les Meules (Haystacks) “People are starving, people are freezing, people are dying,” “This painting is not going to be worth anything if we have to fight over food. When will you finally start to listen?”
7 Oct 14, 2022 National Gallery, London – tomato soup on a glazed Van Gogh (Sunflowers 1888), Just Stop Oil
8 Oct 9 2022 NGV, Melbourne - two Extinction Rebellion protesters superglued their hands to Picasso‘s Massacre in Korea (on loan) NGV stated the artwork, which was protected by a Perspex glazing, was unharmed.
9 July 22 2022 Uffizi, Florence - Sandro Botticelli’s Primavera - stuck themselves to the glass - seen holding a banner reading: "Ultima Generazione, no gas, no carbon."
10 July 4 2022 National Gallery, London -, John Constable’s 1821 masterpiece Hay Wain,  Just Stop Oil campaign. The court was told glue was applied to the frame during the protest, and double-sided tape was used to stick the activists’ image to the painting.
11 May 2022 Louvre, Paris - smearing with cake of the bulletproof glass protecting Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, purported to protest artists not focusing enough on "the planet".

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