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Art-World Women Publish Open Letter Condemning Sexism

An open letter signed by more than 1,800 women in the art world was posted early Monday morning on a website called Not Surprised in response to the resignation of longtime Artforum co-publisher Knight Landesman. The prominent art-world figure has been the subject of numerous sexual harassment allegations and a lawsuit from a former employee.

The letter emerged as part of a discussion group about Landesman’s sexual misconduct, which the text describes as “a longtime open secret in the industry,” and calls on victims to share their stories and name abusers.

The signatories include well known artists (Barbara Kruger, Tauba Auerbach, Cindy Sherman, Catherine Opie, Cecily Brown, Rachel Harrison, Jenny Holzer, and Julie Mehretu), dealers (Barbara Gladstone, Bridget Donahue, Hannah Hoffman), curators (Alison Gingeras, Eungie Joo, Laura Hoptman), writers (Coco Fusco, Miranda July, Johanna Fateman, Kimberly Drew), and even some Artforum employees (Courtney Yoshimura, Lauren O’Neill-Butler).

“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,” the letter says. It denounces art institutions that “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.”

In a jab aimed directly at Artforum, whose publishers announced the day of Landesman’s resignation that the magazine would create a women’s task force to oversee the improvement of its workplace culture, the letter says: “We will not join ‘task forces’ to solve a problem that is perpetrated upon us.”

Meanwhile, as pressures rise, Artforum is making a push to improve its work environment. Despite the insult in the letter, spokespeople for Artforummaintain that the task force is an earnest company-wide initiative that will serve every department in the magazine, as well as its sister publication Bookforum.

“This is a group of employees that are working together toward similar goals to set a standard for the best possible workplace environment,” representatives told artnet News on Sunday evening. “They’re really keen to put it together. They want it to be inclusive and holistic. It will be a living, breathing thing.”

The magazine has appeared deeply divided in the wake of the scandal. Editor-in-chief Michelle Kuo announced plans to step down last week, saying that “in light of the troubling allegations surrounding one of our publishers, I could no longer serve as a public representative of Artforum.” More than 50 other staff members posted an open letter on Artforum‘s website condemning their publishers’ initial statement about Landesman, which had called the lawsuit’s allegations “unfounded.”

In the days since, however, the magazine employees have been rapidly coming together, the spokespeople say. “There’s a unified commitment to the magazine,” they said. “The issues this letter address are of paramount importance to the magazine. It is after all a woman-led magazine and has been for years—on the masthead there’s 14 women and six men.”

The night of the staff’s condemnation of the magazine management, co-publisher Tony Korner wrote an email to the employees in response, telling them, “We are extremely grateful for your honest feedback.” He added that they would welcome anonymous comments, in-person meetings, and planned to create “a group of active facilitators who will ensure open and regular communication and a continuous feedback loop. This will be a standing, long-term resource, and one that we believe will be a significant step in strengthening our office environment.” (A copy of Korner’s email was sent to artnet News.)

The magazine has also appointed former web editor David Velasco as its new editor-in-chief. Velasco, who has been in active discussion with the publishers about the task force and other workplace concerns, told artnet News through the magazine’s representatives: “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.”

Read the full text of the open letter from the women of Not Surprised below.

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.


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