Open letter denounces sexual harassment in the artworld

Jenny Holzer, Abuse of Power Comes As No Surprise, 1982. © the artist, Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: John Marchael. Courtesy Jane Dickson

An open letter denouncing sexual harassment in the artworld has been published and signed by over 200 artists, curators, museum directors, writers, gallerists and other professionals from the field. Titled ‘We are not surprised’, the letter emerged from discussions between members of the artworld in the wake of accusations against Artforum’s co-publisher Knight Landesman, and states: ‘There is an urgent need to share our accounts of widespread sexism, unequal and inappropriate treatment, harassment and sexual misconduct, which we experience regularly, broadly, and acutely.’ While widespread discussion within the artworld and in the media led to Landesman’s resignation last week, the letter insists that the fight should not stop there: ‘The resignation of one publisher from one high-profile magazine does not solve the larger, more insidious problem: an art world that upholds inherited power structures at the cost of ethical behavior.’

The long list of signatories includes artists Nicole Eisenmann, Lynn Hershman Leeson and Laure Prouvost, as well as dealers like Barbara Gladstone and Lucy Mitchell-Innes, and art writer Valerie Werder, who is one of the women named in the lawsuit against Landesman. Werder told the Guardian that her disappointment over Artforum’s handling of the situation led her to get involved in the letter’s creation: ‘Suddenly we were over 100 strong and I felt this incredible amount of support from an international and very diverse community of women and gender non-confirming people.’

The full statement reads:

We are not surprised.

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.

This open letter stems from a group discussion about sexual harassment within our field, following the recent revelation of Knight Landesman’s sexual misconduct. The conversation has branched out further and internationally. Harder work to advance equity is often expected of and performed by women of color, trans, and gender nonconforming people. Our efficacy relies on taking this intersection very seriously and not excluding other corroborating factors that contribute to bias, exclusion, and abuse. These additional factors include, but are not limited to, gender identity, ability, religion, class, and immigration status. There is an urgent need to share our accounts of widespread sexism, unequal and inappropriate treatment, harassment and sexual misconduct, which we experience regularly, broadly, and acutely.

Many institutions and individuals with power in the art world espouse the rhetoric of feminism and equity in theory, often financially benefitting from these flimsy claims of progressive politics, while preserving oppressive and harmful sexist norms in practice. Those in power ignore, excuse, or commit everyday instances of harassment and degradation, creating an environment of acceptance of and complicity in many more serious, illegal abuses of power.

The resignation of one publisher from one high-profile magazine does not solve the larger, more insidious problem: an art world that upholds inherited power structures at the cost of ethical behavior. Similar abuses occur frequently and on a large scale within this industry. We have been silenced, ostracized, pathologized, dismissed as “overreacting,” and threatened when we have tried to expose sexually and emotionally abusive behavior.

We will be silenced no longer.

We will denounce those who would continue to exploit, silence, and dismiss us. Your actions will no longer be a secret, whispered amongst us for fear of ostracization, professional shunning, and recrimination. Where we see the abuse of power, we resolve to speak out, to demand that institutions and individuals address our concerns seriously, and to bring these incidents to light regardless of the perpetrator’s gender.

We will no longer ignore the condescending remarks, the wayward hands on our bodies, the threats and intimidations thinly veiled as flirtation, or the silence from ambitious colleagues. 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. We provide a definition of sexual harassment, for those who may feel powerless so that they may point to a document that supports a safe work environment for all.

We, the undersigned—those who have experienced abuse and those standing in solidarity with them—call upon art institutions, boards, and peers to consider their role in the perpetuation of different levels of sexual inequity and abuse, and how they plan to handle these issues in the future.

We are too many, now, to be silenced or ignored.

With all we have experienced and witnessed, this letter should come as no surprise.

You can sign the letter here

30 October 2017