A man smeared bright pink paint on Northern River (1915), a landscape by the renowned Group of Seven artist Tom Thomson at the National Gallery in the Canadian capital of Ottawa, in the latest protest by climate activists to target art in public collections. The protest, which occurred around noon on Tuesday (29 August) according to the Ottawa Citizen, was organised by the group On2Ottawa, which is calling on Canada’s federal government to create a national firefighting agency as the country grapples with its worst wildfire season ever.
One man, Kaleb Suedfeld, was arrested by Ottawa police and is being charged with criminal mischief, according to the Globe & Mail. In a statement taking responsibility for the protest, On2Ottawa said the paint used was washable, and called on Canada’s government to take “urgent action on the climate and ecological crisis”. In a video of the incident posted on the group’s Facebook page, a protestor is seen smearing paint on the painting, glueing one of his hands to the gallery floor and then using the other to take printed remarks from his pocket, which he then reads.
“Fossil fuel industries are destroying the work of art that is our planet, and our government is firmly in their grip, doing nothing to stop their crimes,” the activist says. “We are shocked that the governments of the world, including our own, are allowing this beautiful planet, this work of art, to be gutted and burned to fill the pockets of fossil fuel plutocrats. No more—this must stop, or we will not stop disrupting.” The group’s statement promises further actions around the Canadian capital in the coming days.
In a statement, the National Gallery said that the Thomson painting had been on display “in a protective glazed panel”, was not damaged and is expected to “be rehung shortly”. The statement adds: “An individual, who is unknown to the National Gallery of Canada, attempted to deface Tom Thomson’s Northern River, 1915, on view at the Gallery. [..] The Gallery immediately implemented security protocols and the Ottawa Police Service arrested the individual.”
While this is the first major protest by climate activists targeting an artwork in Ottawa, such actions have taken elsewhere in Canada. Last November, activists from the group Stop Fracking Around poured maple syrup onto the Emily Carr painting Stumps and Sky (1934) at the Vancouver Art Gallery in protest of a planned pipeline in northern British Columbia. And in March, activists with On2Ottawa painted the tusks of a towering model of a woolly mammoth—one of the star attractions at the Royal British Columbia Museum in the provincial capital of Victoria—bright pink, leading to the arrests of three activists.
As such protests have targeted cultural institutions with increasing frequency—from Washington, DC to the Vatican—so the penalties have become increasingly severe. Two protestors who splashed red paint on the protective case around an Edgar Degas sculpture at the National Gallery of Art in Washington are facing federal charges and possible prison time. A group of more than 90 museum leaders has spoken out against the activists, whose tactics they say “severely underestimate the fragility of these irreplaceable objects”.