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Open Letter Condemns Sexual Harassment in Art World [Updated]

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Earlier this evening, The Guardian shared news of a letter, signed by hundreds of art professionals, that discusses and condemns sexual harassment in the international art world. The letter, which has since been released on its own dedicated site with some 2,000 signatures, begins, “We are gallerists, artists, writers, editors, curators, directors, arts administrators, assistants, and interns–workers of the art world–and we have been groped, undermined, harassed, infantilised, 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.”

Among the signatories on the letter are artists Coco Fusco, Helen Marten, Cindy Sherman, Lisa Yuskavage, and Anicka Yi, dealers Sadie Coles and Barbara Gladstone, curator Laura Hoptman, museum directors Lisa Phillips, Suzanne Cotter, and Sarah Munro, and art advisor Eleanor Cayre.

Discussing abuses and hypocrisy in an industry in which “institutions and individuals with power . . . espouse the rhetoric of feminism and equity in theory,” the letter states, “We will be silenced no longer.” It adds later, “We will not tolerate being shamed or disbelieved, and we will not tolerate the recrimination that comes with speaking out. We will not join ‘task forces’ to solve a problem that is perpetrated upon us.”

The open letter comes days after allegations of sexual harassment against Artforum publisher Knight Landesman, who resigned on Tuesday. Both Landesman and the publication are being sued by a former employee, Amanda Schmitt, who alleges that she was harassed by the publisher and that the magazine failed adequately to intervene.

On Thursday night, the staff of Artforum released a letter on its website that begins, “We, the undersigned staff of Artforum and Bookforum, condemn the way the allegations against Knight Landesman have been handled by our publishers and repudiate the statements that have been issued to represent us so far.” Artforum’s publishers had initially responded to the lawsuit by saying that the publication had taken action to address Schmitt’s initial complaint but that her “subsequent claim for damages, in 2017, one year after her initial complaint, appears to be unfounded, and seems to be an attempt to exploit a relationship that she herself worked hard to create and maintain.” As other allegations of harassment, and those found in Schmitt’s legal complaint, were reported by various media outlets, the publishers released a second statement on Wednesday, following Landesman’s resignation, saying that he “had engaged in unacceptable behavior and caused a hostile work environment” and that “his behavior undermines the feminist ideals we have long strived to stand for. In response, we are creating a special task force of women at the magazine who will oversee this transformation.”

Later on Wednesday, the resignation of Artforum’s editor-in-chief, Michelle Kuo, a week earlier became public. She said in a statement on Thursday night, “I resigned because I felt that, in light of the troubling allegations surrounding one of our publishers, I could no longer serve as a public representative of Artforum.”

David Velasco, the longtime editor of Artforum.com, has been named to replace Kuo. He has not given interviews since his appointment but tonight he released the following statement through a spokesperson for the magazine: “The art world is misogynist. Art history is misogynist. Also racist, classist, transphobic, ableist, homophobic. I will not accept this. I know my colleagues here agree. Intersectional feminism is an ethics near and dear to so many on our staff. Our writers too. This is where we stand. There’s so much to be done. Now, we get to work.”

In a letter to staff last week, following news of Kuo’s departure, publisher and chair Anthony Korner, who acquired the publication in 1979, said, “We want to make clear that we stand alongside you and that as we field inquiries, we are also working on our responses inside the office and ways we can best help all of you by showing our support and respect. We are now laying the groundwork for a workplace that is safe and empowering.”

Today’s open letter had been circulating in private networks online over the past few days, with the stipulation that it not be shared with press and that it not be passed to men. (The growing list of signatories is predominantly made up of women-identified and gender-nonconforming people, though some men are on the list.) It has been distributed under the name “Not Surprised,” and one paragraph reads, “We are not surprised when curators offer exhibitions or support in exchange for sexual favours. We are not surprised when gallerists romanticise, minimise, and hide sexually abusive behaviour 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. Abuse of power comes as no surprise.” (That final line quotes directly from work by the artist Jenny Holzer, who has signed the letter.)

Sarah McCrory, the director of the Centre for Contemporary Art at Goldsmiths, University of London, told The Guardian that the letter grew out of conversations on Whataspp in the wake of the harassment allegations last week. “It began from discussions on social media between colleagues initially about how to react to the Artforum situation,” she said. “We were concerned about how it was being dealt with and about accountability.”

“We are too many, now, to be silenced or ignored,” the letter concludes. “With all we have experienced and witnessed, this letter should come as no surprise.”

Sarah Douglas contributed reporting.

Update, October 30, 7:15 a.m.: This post has been updated with information about a dedicated website for the letter that has just gone online. In addition, details about the signatories have been clarified and corrected. Jenny Holzer was not listed as a signatory on the Guardian letter but has signed, and the formatting for the official letter on the “Not Surprised” website lists all signatories in alphabetical order.

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