The curator and art fair director Amanda Schmitt filed a complaint today in the Supreme Court of the State of New York accusing former Artforum publisher Knight Landesman of years of sexual harassment, in the form of “unwelcome physical contact and repulsive written and oral demands for intimacy” while she was an employee of the magazine and after she left in 2012.
The complaint also names Artforum International Magazine, Inc. as a defendant, and accuses the publication of allowing Landesman’s sexually abusive behavior toward multiple women to occur without consequence. It also claims that the magazine slandered Schmitt and threatened retaliation against current and former employees who might speak out against the harassment to the authorities or the press. The plaintiff seeks compensatory damages of $500,000 plus attorneys’ fees and punitive damages.
Today Landesman resigned from his position as publisher, which he held for more than 30 years, in the wake of the news of the sexual misconduct allegations from Schmitt and other women mentioned in the complaint. In addition, other individuals have since come forward to ARTnews to discuss inappropriate behavior they had experienced. Landesman did not respond to multiple requests for comment. A spokesperson for Artforum shared comments from the other publishers tonight in which they defended their actions. Asked if other complaints had been lodged against Landesman during his tenure at the magazine, they said, “Over the 35 years that Knight worked for Artforum there were no such complaints.”
Just after the publication of this article, ARTnews learned that Artforum’s editor-in-chief Michelle Kuo had resigned.
From today’s suit, a hallmark of the alleged behavior appears to have been asking women to speak about their sex lives. In one alleged instance, Landesman learned that Elisabeth McAvoy, who was in her 20s and an Artforum employee, was living with her sister and was told, according to the complaint, “that she should move out so that her sister could ‘come herself to sleep.’ ” Another complainant, unnamed in the suit but identified as “a woman curator from a well-known UK museum,” claimed Landesman rubbed her leg at a dinner while “talking to her about his sexual life with his wife, and asking her about hers.” According to another complainant, Abigail Toll, he invited her to what turned out to be “a secluded garden apartment” for a meeting and “proceeded to ask her intimate sexual questions about her past and current sexual partners, her sexual pleasures and preferences, and whether her current partner satisfied her sexually.” Yet another complainant, Valerie Werder, alleges that “he asked about her sexual preferences and whether her boyfriend was satisfying her sexually, and said she seemed like a girl who liked rough experimental things such as S&M and spanking.”
Today the artist Tiril Hasselknippe told ARTnews that she met Landesman when she was working for the Oslo gallery Standard as a temporary employee at the gallery’s both at Art Basel Miami Beach in 2010. She was in her mid-20s at the time. “He took an interest in me,” she said. “He seemed to want to mentor me, to help me.” Landesman invited her to a Christmas party at his apartment, and she brought a date. She also had tea with Landesman in his office. She said of Landesman, “We’d talk about my art and dating life. He was saying he would introduce me to this and that person. Very fast I felt this is wrong.”
Eventually Hasselknippe, who had been in New York to study temporarily at the Cooper Union, returned to Norway. She had ended contact with Landesman, she said. In late 2012, however, she said, Landesman emailed her “out of the blue,” asking her to text him immediately after she orgasmed, whether she was alone or with another person. She did not reply. She told ARTnews she was “furious” about the email and “felt powerless.” He followed up with an email that said he realized he had crossed a line, but that that is his style. For a year after that email, she said, he also sent her issues of Artforum with notes bearing hearts and flowers and indications that he was missing her.
Earlier this week, she mentioned in a Facebook post that she had had a negative experience with Landesman and, she told ARTnews, heard from some 35 people who had also had such experiences.
After she ceased contact with Landesman, she told ARTnews, “I thought: I will never be in Artforum. I have burned this bridge.”
The artist Alice Lancaster told ARTnews of her own experience with Landesman. In 2015, she said that she and a friend went to his home for brunch. “I remember him touching my nose at one point,” Lancaster told ARTnews, “but it didn’t seem creepy.” Later, a friend put Lancaster in touch via email, and she thanked Landesman for having her over. She was a painter at the time, and she sent him a link to her website. On April 12, 2015, Landesman emailed Lancaster a note that she called “incredibly inappropriate and offensive.” He wrote in an email reviewed by ARTnews, “One day when you start painting naked men maybe I’ll pose for you, if you agree to be naked too while you are painting. Fun to meet you.”
“I hope more people come out about this,” Lancaster said. “It can’t go on.”
An art dealer who wished to remain anonymous was made uncomfortable by Landesman’s unwanted arm on a shoulder. At the gallery, the dealer said, “I once held a Windex bottle up to his face and told him not to touch me. I don’t want this.”
The suit alleges that Landesman engaged in groping and made lewd comments in the Artforum office, at Artforum dinners, and at art world functions he had attended in his capacity as a publisher of the publication. The complaint includes emails with lewd language, many sent from his Artforum email address, as well as texts sent from a personal phone.
Schmitt, who is now a director at the Untitled art fair, started as a circulation assistant at Artforum in September 2009. The suit alleges that, soon after joining the magazine, she began receiving invitations to Landesman’s office, which is on a separate floor from the rest of the magazine’s operations. There, Landesman allegedly asked about her sex life while touching her without permission on her hips, shoulders, buttocks, hands, and neck. The complaint alleges that such activity was known to Artforum staffers and treated as part of the culture.
“Landesman’s conduct was so widely accepted in the office that it was often discussed and met simply with eye rolling and comments such as, ‘well, that’s just how Knight is,’ ” the suit reads.
The suit alleges that Landesman at times wielded his power in the international art world in the form of quid pro quo arrangements with sexual overtones. When he recommended Schmitt to a potential employer, he forwarded the response to her, saying she had to “remember our understanding” that she would repay him for the favor with “compliments.”
Schmitt left Artforum in August of 2012, and alleges that the harassment continued via email, text, and interactions in both social settings and private meetings. The suit says that Landesman invited Schmitt to have tea, suddenly grabbed her by the shoulders, and forced kisses on her. Landesman’s response to her rejection, it claims, was to threaten to cease using his influence to advance her career. He asked her to reconsider her refusal to accept his advances for the sake of “the benefit of your relationship with everyone, collectors, people, power, even those most important to you.”
Some of the emails and texts included in the suit contain explicit language. “Are you making yourself climax Amanda ?” one email from Landesman in 2013 reads. “How often ? Or I can’t ask that inside your boundaries ? Will you ever let ME make our boundaries, trust me enough for that?”
In another, Landesman addressed what he referred to as “brown nosing fear,” before extrapolating into a detailed discussion of related sexual activity.
In June 2016, seven years after she alleges the abuse began, and after attending therapy, Schmitt came to two Artforum publishers, Charles Guarino and Danielle McConnell, to discuss what she termed Landesman’s history of inappropriate behavior. The suit alleges that Guarino admitted that he knew of other victims who had been harassed by Landesman, and when they read Schmitt’s written evidence that she gave a lawyer, did not deny any of its content. In response, Guarino made a promise that the publication would be “taking action to insure that whatever may have transpired never happens again.”
But the suit alleges that Artforum has offered no evidence that Landesman complied with his fellow publishers’ requests, which were that he stop meeting with female employees alone or at events and that he start going to therapy. Instead, he continued to email and text Schmitt, she alleges, and in May 2017, he accosted her while she was having dinner at a Manhattan restaurant with her partner, the artist Nicolas Guagnini, and the art writer and professor Alex Kitnick. The suit says that an altercation occurred when Landesman abruptly pulled a chair up to their table and called Schmitt a liar for accusing him of an improper behavior and asked Kitnick and Guagnini to “help [her] understand the reality.” He denied it and said he would discuss the matter with Kitnick, who Landesman claimed would “be able to judge the situation.” After leaving the table, Schmitt returned to call out Landesman for his years of sexually abusive acts, until he finally left the restaurant.
This prompted Schmitt to retain legal counsel when meeting with Artforum and Landesman, and bolstered her claim by including the experiences of women, eight of whom are included in the suit.
The suit says that Schmitt’s lawyer, Emily Reisbaum, negotiated with Landesman’s fellow publishers over the allegations, but that it became clear no agreement could reached—principally because, it says, Artforum insisted on “a gag order preventing Schmitt from telling her story to any journalists or media.” It also says that Artforum executives warned employees of an impending lawsuit but insisting that the claims were “unjust” because all Landesman’s sexual relationship with Schmitt was “consensual and non physical.”
Asked about this, the publishers said, “No. During the last days we have learned more about the situation, and the intention of the staff meeting was in the spirit of full transparency and openness as Artforum does not tolerate this kind of behavior in the workplace.” Citing the ongoing litigation, they declined to elaborate.
According to the suit, the publisher Charles Guarino alleged that the complaint was a campaign to “try to take down Artforum.” Asked about this allegation, the publishers replied, “Mr. Guarino did not say it was part of a campaign.”
To that end Artforum allegedly warned staffers about reporting sexual harassment or speaking about it with the press, to the extent that those at the magazine believed that any internal or external discussion of such matters could threaten their jobs. When one of the women alleging abuse mentioned in the suit, the artist Alissa McKendrick, posted to Instagram an image, first shared by the artist Liam Neff, that mentioned Landesman alongside Harvey Weinstein, those in the office who had interacted with or even just seen the post were targeted by higher-ups. “This is absolutely not true,” the publishers said in a statement. “In fact, Artforum has made it a priority to create an environment where people are invited to speak openly and we are in an active listening mode and a new task force of women at the magazine has been established in order to prevent this from ever happening again.”
This week, a reporter with the publication Artnet News contacted Artforum indicating that they had heard about the impending suit and were planning a story. Artforum provided the reporter with a statement defending Landesman and calling Schmitt’s claim “unfounded,” saying that the suit “seems to be an attempt to exploit a relationship that she herself worked hard to create. The statement also claimed that Artforum has “no wish to silence anyone, nor will we engage in any attempt to do so.”
That statement, the suit alleges, was “full of outright, defamatory lies.”
Update, 7:35 p.m.: The final line of this article has been corrected to make clear that the source of the quotation within it comes from the legal complaint.
Update, 9:35 p.m.: This post has been updated to identify correctly one of the alleged victims in the complaint.
Sarah Douglas and Alex Greenberger contributed reporting.