Picture this: You are 30 and have been running an art gallery for five years, which you’ve personally put almost $50,000 into. Despite the gallery’s success, it has been a financially turbulent road. Recently things have been looking up, and you are thinking of opening a second small gallery in New York City.
At an art fair in Hong Kong, you meet an important collector. He is 13 years older than you and on the board of some of the most prestigious museums in the world. He buys a piece from your gallery for $30,000. Later, at another art fair, he expresses interest in another of your gallery’s pieces and insists on getting drinks. You accept; it’s an opportunity to close a sale.
Over drinks, he mentions the luxury companies in his portfolio and talks about his impressive art collection. He is the kind of collector who could elevate your gallery. That evening, he passes on the piece but later texts: “Careful. I’m into you.”
Over the next couple of weeks, you exchange flirtatious texts. He expresses interest in multiple other works and even requests a few holds (a reservation on a piece), which could total $80,000 in sales. When you next see him in person, he tells you that he is still married and that “no one knows that he is separated.”
One night after dinner, in the back of his black Escalade, the collector offers to back your second NYC gallery space, having just tried (unsuccessfully) to finger you in full view of his driver. It sounds too good to be true. But you can’t help but imagine how his backing would turn your gallery into the empire that you had always imagined, the one you had naively believed simply took hard work and a good eye to build.
You don’t want to acknowledge the quid pro quo: Look the other way about his marriage and be sexually available in exchange for financial support. That night, the two of you make out.
The next time you see him, a few days later, he says that you shouldn’t open a second gallery in NYC. He tells you to stop working with a particular art adviser, one who warned you about him. He says you can’t trust her. You reply: “You’re not exactly the paragon of honesty.” He stops talking to you and takes holds off all the works in your gallery that he was thinking about buying. It is clear that the deal, if it ever existed, is off the table.
This is a true story, one of many that I experienced as an art dealer and co-owner of Night Gallery, a contemporary Los Angeles art gallery focused on emerging artists. I was 25 when I joined the gallery, 30 when I left. However, many women at other galleries or who held other positions in the industry have similar or worse anecdotes. This story is not a window into Night Gallery specifically, but into the hazards young women continually endure in the art world.
When I left Night Gallery, I didn’t just leave a business that I’d helped bring into prominence; I left art dealing altogether. More than five years later, I am still trying to understand how my experiences caused me to leave something I’d poured so much time, money, energy and heart into.
At first I had a hard time seeing just how problematic the high-end art world was. And, after all, I had willingly agreed to go on what I now see clearly was a first date with the billionaire collector. I had willingly sent intriguing texts and kissed him back. I had willingly allowed myself to believe that he might actually fund my business. Naive to the power differential between us, I had then blamed myself for getting personally involved with him and for burning a bridge by finally saying no.
The art world enables such conduct. It is not uncommon for art dealers and their artists, staff and collectors to attend the same parties and drugs, share the same living space and communicate at all hours of the night — activities that often lead to deal-making and lucrative partnerships.
The blurring of professional and private boundaries, the abundance of intoxicants and the barrage of international destination events (art fairs, openings, biennales, etc.) that have a what-happens-in-Vegas feel are also what makes the art world glamorous, enticing many to become participants. It doesn’t take long to feel like your network is your most powerful asset and that pleasing powerful people is the key to career success.
In the art world, as with most worlds, the people in positions of power are almost entirely men. In ArtNews’ Top 200 Collector List from 2021, 94 are men (an additional 79 include men as part of married couples or family funds). Men own the world’s most powerful mega-galleries: Gagosian, David Zwirner, Hauser & Wirth, Pace, Galerie Perrotin, David Kordansky. And men are the ones who largely contribute to the “cartelization” of the art market, a term used by University of Kentucky law professor Brian Frye to describe how power players in the art world form alliances to control artists’ supply and demand, keeping smaller players out of the game.
Women, by contrast, occupy many of the art world’s service roles. They are art advisers, artist liaisons, sales directors or personal assistants, often working for wealthy male gallery owners or collectors. Hilde Helphenstein, otherwise known as art world parodist and influencer Jerry Gogosian, noted that women at auction houses don’t get executive positions. “Only men who attend Eton get those positions,” she said. “[Women] stay specialists.”
All of this can make a young woman feel like her best chance at becoming successful in this world is by becoming romantically or sexually involved with an influential man. Many men take advantage of this dynamic by buying artwork, plane tickets, meals, accommodations or by making promises of financial and professional support just to lure women into bed.
Some women are aware of the temporary and transactional nature of such relationships. But many young women want to believe, as I did, that this older, powerful, rich man really does care and want to help, that he sees something special in me that I cannot see in myself.
Carrot dangling is not the only way women are exploited in the art world. Women themselves are frequently used as lures by their employers. Female friends have told me about times their male employers strategically seated them next to artists or collectors they were trying to woo at dinners, as if they were party favors. Registrars, who sit near the front of galleries, are typically young, lithe, attractive women. And women, from artists to art dealers to advisers, are often compelled to dress as seductively as possible, noting the difference in opportunities gained or sales closed when wearing heels, sheer tops or tight skirts.
The discomfort of unwanted advances and groping are also sadly common for women in the art world. As the head of an art gallery, I was asked out dozens of times, invited to countless parties where drugs were abundant and even asked to give a collector, there to see the gallery’s current show, a blow job.
One of the most unpleasant instances happened three years into running the gallery, when I found myself following up with a collector in Paris about three paintings he’d committed to but had yet to pay for. When I visited this collector’s apartment, he was with a friend: another collector in his 50s or 60s who openly talked about his blue-chip collection and the private jet he frequently flew on. This other collector was drunk and, in front of the collector I was trying to collect payment from, forcibly kissed and nuzzled my neck. I did my best to politely move away, not wanting to do anything that might jeopardize my reason for being there, which was to collect the $15,000 we were owed.
I left feeling gross, undermined and still without payment. In the end, the collector reneged on the sale. I’d put myself in that situation, swallowing my pride and allowing my body to be groped, for naught.
By January 2017, after an older collector who lived overseas told me he’d recently had a threesome with his art-dealing ex-girlfriend (a woman he’d heavily patronized) and a 14-year-old girl, any last romanticism I had about the art world was shattered. I no longer saw the illicit behaviors as sexy, only as the cause of great and irrevocable harm.
When the #MeToo movement began, I was optimistic that there would finally be a reckoning. However, the fallout in the art world was meager compared with the scale of the problem. There were a few high-profile cancellations, such as the artist Chuck Close (whose retrospective at the National Gallery in Washington was revoked), curators Jens Hoffman and Gavin Delahunty, who lost their directorships at distinguished museums, and Artforum publisher Knight Landsman, who was similarly let go. The collector who forcibly kissed and nuzzled my neck was accused of sexual misconduct and sexual assault in 2017.
However, silence surrounds some of the biggest, most powerful offenders who have the legal and financial resources to intimidate even well-off detractors, as well as the ability to ostracize a person from the art world. Those in the art world know exactly who I am talking about. As with Harvey Weinstein, their problematic conduct is an open secret within the industry.
I now make art, write, teach and give talks. I have exhibited and sold paintings through galleries and am not opposed to working within this system as long as it is with people I trust to respect me and other women. I care about my career, but I do not want success so badly that I am willing to put myself in potentially harmful situations or compromise my integrity.
At the same time, I have been sure to find avenues outside the art world to support myself — including NFTs, teaching and publishing — because I never want to be so wholly reliant on a single field that I would be too afraid of the potential consequences to speak up.
Recently I was asked if things have gotten better for young women in the art world since the #MeToo movement. After having some conversations with young women in the field, it is clear that little has changed in five years.
Men with connections and resources still dangle illusory carrots and make unwanted advances on vulnerable women who lack their experience, networks and power, or who use them as lures to entice others. And many of these women blame themselves or are quietly driven out of the industry as a result.
But by comparing our stories to reveal the ways in which sex, money, art and power intersect, we can begin to direct the blame where it belongs and move toward long-overdue change in the art world.