Because our galleries are powerless against art activists

Activists tossed Van Gogh’s Sunflower Soup at the National Gallery – Just Stop Oil / Handout / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Tomato soup, pie, mashed potatoes, glue. Works of art across Europe have come under fire in recent months, with galleries struggling to slow a wave of rioters intent on making a mess. From the National Gallery to the Courtauld, from the Louvre to the Mauritshuis – and more – ad hoc attacks by climate activists have created a security crisis in major European institutions.

In just the past few weeks, activists have latched onto a dinosaur exhibit at the Natural History Museum in Berlin and hurled fake blood at a Toulouse-Lautrec across town in the Alte Nationalgalerie, while a man glued the head to Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring at the Mauritshuis in The Hague, days after a Monet had been covered in mush at the Barberini Museum in Potsdam.

“Art is defenseless,” a Mauritshuis spokesperson said in the wake of that particular attack. After an inspection to verify that Vermeer’s 1665 piece was undamaged, it was returned to its usual place the next day, “so that,” said director Martine Gosselink, “our visitors from around the world can admire it again, and that’s what art is for ”.

Yet, behind the scenes, the galleries are clearly scared. The flood began earlier this summer – a copy of Leonardo’s Last Supper was attacked at the Royal Academy in July – but accelerated last month, after Just Stop Oil protesters threw tomato soup at Sunflowers by Van Gogh in the National Gallery. The actions have forced them to tighten protection – at a time when few can afford it – or to risk a future where copycat attacks completely threaten the future of tunnels.

No gallery I spoke to would outline the new measures they are introducing, lest they further compromise their safety. But reinforced glass and bag control, which many British galleries have so far avoided, may not only be inevitable, but also the beginning of what is to come. Many in the industry fear that governments or trusts that own major works are no longer willing to lend them and that the cost of insurance will become exorbitant enough to close the doors of galleries that already face limited opening or closing hours, due to their energy bills up to 500 percent.

Activists glued under Monet's Les Meules after throwing mashed potatoes on the painting - HANDOUT / AFP via Getty Images

Activists glued under Monet’s Les Meules after throwing mashed potatoes on the painting – HANDOUT / AFP via Getty Images

No matter how much money is given to protect the art, “can we stop someone from coming in and throwing a can of tomato soup on it? If someone is determined, it’s very easy to do,” says Philip Mold, gallery owner and curator. He describes the galleries as a “soft target … the safe environment for art is not as safe as it was”.

But, Mold points out, increasing security also comes with pitfalls. “With ropes, with glass, with distance, we are denied that significant visceral attachment to a work of art that you can find in an art gallery when you get close.”

However, there may be no other option. While previously art attacks occurred once or twice a year – the biggest security concern was theft, as opposed to social media disfigurement – this problem now occurs “almost every day,” according to Mick Field, senior. operations manager at Sec Tech, a private security company.

Field says spending more money on security measures is the only guaranteed precaution. His team, made up of ex-military and bodyguards, is tasked six times a year with protecting meetings of the Art Fund (the national charity for art), where decisions are made on artifacts for a worth millions and whether they should stay in the UK. It is, he says, their training that has allowed such meetings to run smoothly over the past 12 years. The low-paid workers who are generally hired to occupy tunnel doors – Sec Tech charges a significantly higher figure of £ 500 per guard, per day – rarely give more than a quick look inside the bags. Nor, Field adds, do they have any motivation to do more. “It’s a question of cost. If you pay normal industry rates to regular static security guards, that’s exactly what you get. “

But many in the industry fear that turning tunnels into airports will be a game changer for both institutions and bettors. And even that bleak future isn’t feasible for smaller dresses, where, as art historian and merchant Richard Morris points out, paintings are typically unprotected and staff are volunteers. “It’s a big deal, a big deal,” he says of the randomness of the attacks, which could, for example, at the Wolsey Art Gallery in Ipswich, easily destroy the unglazed works on the walls. Ditto National Trust properties, which feature works by artists such as John Constable, whose Hay Wain was targeted at the National Gallery in July. While Just Stop Oil has so far only targeted pieces with protective covers, it “will spur on mimic attacks,” Morris thinks, “and we don’t know what they will hit.” Given that “more supervision requires more funding, [and] very few galleries have that funding … the cost of security will be the final nail in the coffin for some of them. “

Police stand guard outside Mauritshuis museum after attempting to vilify Vermeer's girl with a pearl earring - Phil Nijhuis / ANP / AFP

Police stand guard outside Mauritshuis museum after attempting to vilify Vermeer’s girl with a pearl earring – Phil Nijhuis / ANP / AFP

Although the frequency of attacks is new, art is a target of destruction it is not. When Just Stop Oil protesters glued to Constable’s work in July, they stopped in front of Diego Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus, which was cut in 1914 by suffragette Mary Richardson to protest the arrest of another activist. It triggered so many similar attacks that women were at one stage banned from major museums and ordered to leave bags and muffs in the wardrobes before they could enter. The Mona Lisa was hit repeatedly, twice in 1956 alone, damaged by acid and a stone – before it was put behind the bulletproof case that saved it from flying cake in May.

Yet Richardson’s protest iconoclasm feels lost in many recent attempts, where the link between the protest and the piece is often unclear. As orange mulch from a Heinz soup may slip on Van Gogh’s sunflowers last month, protesters shouted, “Are you feeling indignant? Good. Where is that feeling when you see the planet being destroyed before our eyes? – which only seemed to highlight the arbitrariness of the show.

Morris adds that there are a myriad of hypocrisies with this wave of protests, such as the fact that they are being filmed on smartphones made in China, “which is one of the highest oil consumers in the world. It doesn’t make any sense, really ”. Then there is the matter of those who are left to tidy up the activist mess – probably the least paid ones – and the fact that the additional costs for safety and insurance may require cuts in salaries and staff in other departments – al culmination of a cost-crisis of living. Others I have spoken to have noted that museums, inherently a “safe space”, neutralize much of the shock value these “radical” attempts seek, as well as the harsher consequences that come from taking action outdoors.

Just Stop Oil, whose National Gallery activists will be tried for criminal damages next month, did not respond directly to these objections, saying only that “they will end the disruption when the government agrees to abandon its toxic and harmful proposals to mine. new oil and gas “.

Their statement continued: “The cost of living crisis is being driven by the staggering profits of large energy companies, causing misery for ordinary people and the loss of our public spaces. We use this wealth to protect what we value, our art and culture, our freedoms and rights and we simply stop funding the destruction of our future ”.

While the galleries’ next steps remain a cause for concern, protests over these public sketches are at least proof, Mold says, of the “meaning of art in our lives.” He adds that in a perverse way, Just Stop Oil and their travel companions have made us appreciate the targeted pieces even more. “It’s designed to hurt – and it hurts for a reason.”

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