“Abuse of power comes as no surprise.”
The phrase, one of conceptual artist Jenny Holzer’s “Truisms,” has become a rallying cry for members of the art world who are speaking out against a culture that tacitly permits sexual assault at the hands of powerful men.
Over 2,000 women and gender non-conforming artists, writers, curators, gallerists and educators signed an open letter titled “Not Surprised” on Monday, condemning the power structures that condone and cover up sexual misconduct in the workplace. It reads in part:
We are artists, arts administrators, assistants, curators, directors, editors, educators, gallerists, interns, scholars, students, writers, and more ― workers of the art world ― and we have been groped, undermined, harassed, infantilized, scorned, threatened, and intimidated by those in positions of power who control access to resources and opportunities. We have held our tongues, threatened by power wielded over us and promises of institutional access and career advancement.
We are not surprised when curators offer exhibitions or support in exchange for sexual favors. We are not surprised when gallerists romanticize, minimize, and hide sexually abusive behavior by artists they represent. We are not surprised when a meeting with a collector or a potential patron becomes a sexual proposition. We are not surprised when we are retaliated against for not complying. We are not surprised when Knight Landesman gropes us in the art fair booth while promising he’ll help us with our career. Abuse of power comes as no surprise.
The proclamation, which was signed by iconic artists like Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, Deborah Kass, Marilyn Minter, Tania Bruguera and Jenny Holzer herself, can be read in full on Not-Surprised.org.
The website also features a complete definition of sexual assault, which clarifies that abuse of this kind is “rarely purely related to sexual desire” and “often a misuse and abuse of power and position, whose perpetrators use sexual behavior as a tool or weapon.”
The letter was drafted following reports that former co-publisher of ArtForum magazine Knight Landesman has allegedly sexually harassed various women over the course of a decade, promising career advancement in exchange for their silence and acquiescence. Of course, Landesman is only one player in a competitive culture where powerful, white men ― whether artists, dealers, curators, publishers or collectors ― function as gatekeepers who can “make or break” the young and vulnerable.
Chloe Wise, a Canadian artist living in New York City, expressed her motivation for signing the letter in an email to HuffPost. “The art world is, as every other industry, completely built upon misogynistic structures and systemic gender-based abuse,” she began, adding:
I’m sick of sitting through painful moments where an older man is outwardly commenting on my appearance or asking questions about my sexual preferences, putting his hand on my leg or lower back, and being told to laugh off revolting advances by someone who could be my grandfather, all because they are a “really good collector.” I’m sick of my artwork and my self being infantilized and sexualized during studio visits, dinners, at art fairs and openings, meanwhile male figurative artists are celebrated, revered and valued more than female artists, even if their content is completely sexual and misogynistic in nature.
My main frustration is the insidious nature of these kinds of abuse, because so many men are able to look at these stories and feel as though they have nothing to do with it, because as far as they know, they’ve never physically abused a woman. The issue here is not solely physical sexual abuse or assault, but rather the subtle and constant way that women are consistently pushed down and made silent, in a manner that is so entrenched and normalized that it does not even register as an offense to most men. I hope that the more we come together to support each other and share stories and outline the problems, the more men will be able to pinpoint and identify their involvement and complacency, take accountability for their behaviors and make real change moving forward.
“The issue here is not solely physical sexual abuse or assault, but rather the subtle and constant way that women are consistently pushed down and made silent.”
More women in the art world wrote to HuffPost on Monday, angry at a complex system that glorifies and empowers wealthy, powerful men at the expense of the marginalized and vulnerable.
(A number of women shared stories of this unsettling dynamic earlier this month, following news that Condé Nast would be ending its relationship with alleged sexual abuser Terry Richardson.)
“I hope people and institutions in power will stop maintaining an infantilized art world that treats women members as decorative, expendable, convenient containers for fantasies and bullshit,” New York-based artist Mary Reid Kelley wrote in an email. “I signed the letter because I want to be part of this grown-up art world.”
Mira Schor, also based in New York, reiterated a hope that the open letter will necessitate a shift in the industry. “I hope that it will help lead to positive changes in art world institutions and practices, particularly in empowering women to speak their mind and follow their intellectual and aesthetic passions and talents without unnecessary impediments caused by gender prejudice and either every day or unusually repellent sexual harassment or abuse,” she wrote.
In a previous blog post, Schor offered one way to ensure young women in the beginning of their careers are not put in compromising positions: put more women in charge.
“Institutions might change if these women in the arts were raised to a bigger level of responsibility,” she said, “so that what they think is important, what they are aware of, what they bother to respect, might be given room at the top of the institution. I think this might help change the culture of these work places.”
Of course, placing women in positions of power isn’t the only solution ― and it won’t address every aspect of the predatory behavior that’s become commonplace in art institutions.
Writer Coco Fusco, the Andrew Banks Endowed Professor of Art at the University of Florida, shared concern over the lack of supervision in many art world environments that leaves room for inappropriate behavior to occur unmonitored ― regardless of who’s in charge.
“I am hoping that some [institutions] will implement stronger policies to protect employees,” she said. “The bigger problem though is that the art world is for the most part an unregulated industry. Much of the business happens in social settings and one-on-one. It’s hard to control people’s behavior in those contexts. Powerful art dealers and independent superstar curators and millionaire artists are not subject to employee regulations the way one might be at a museum.
“And as long as there are zillions of struggling artists who will stop at nothing to get ahead, it will be very difficult to eliminate unsavory means of personal advancement.”
There is no single person or issue at the root of the sexual mistreatment that plagues the art world. Rather, a complex networks of power imbalance, wealth inequality, misogyny and lack of regulation make it so. An open letter won’t solve all the art world’s problems, but it can announce a new normal, where acts of discrimination, abuse and condescension will no longer be ignored.
“What is abundantly clear is that the problem goes way beyond the arts,” Laura Raicovich, the director of the Queens Museum in New York, told HuffPost, “and is a much broader social norm that we must upend. The cat is out of the bag.”
If you have a story about powerful men in the art world engaging in predatory behavior, please contact reporter Priscilla Frank at email@example.com.