A radical artist is forcing an iconic British cultural institution to answer seismic questions over abuse

Photo of A radical artist is forcing an iconic British cultural institution to answer seismic questions over abuse

Artist and performer Liv Wynter spent most of her teenage years skipping school to hang out in art galleries. The 25-year-old often went to the Tate, Britain’s leading cultural institution, where she was free to lose herself in experimental films and the latest exhibitions.”It’s really easy to hide at the Tate because it’s so big and there’s lots of school trips,” she says, adding she was able to quietly blend in.

So when Wynter was offered the job of artist in residence at Tate Britain and Tate Modern’s education program for 2017-18, it was a dream come true. “I was so excited and I was so proud,” she tells Quartz. But expectations didn’t live up to reality.

“I was feeling weird because I was walking around these works and seeing Carl Andre’s work and I was just starting to feel, ‘Hey, did you forgot something here when you took this job?’” Wynter says. Andre is an American minimalist artist who was accused and later acquitted of killing his wife, artist Ana Mendieta.

That wasn’t the only issue. In January, The Guardian broke the news that UK art dealer Anthony d’Offay, one of the most powerful men in contemporary art, is facing allegations of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior from three women. D’Offay said in a statement to The Guardian that he was “appalled” by the allegations and categorically denied them. In 2008, d’Offay was widely applauded for giving his £125 million ($173 million) personal collection of postwar works to the Tate for only £26 million. This donation helped establish the “Artist Room” project—a touring collection of over 1,600 works of modern and contemporary art. Last month, Tate announced it would be suspending its contact with d’Offay.

While Wynter underwent an internal “crisis,” Tate director Maria Balshaw was asked to comment on sexual harassment and violence, and the ongoing investigation against d’Offay. In an interview with The Times (paywall), Balshaw said the Tate had given a “measured response” to d’Offay’s investigation. She went on to say, “But I personally have never suffered any such issues. Then, I wouldn’t. I was raised to be a confident woman who, when I encountered harassment, would say, ‘Please don’t’… or something rather more direct.” Balshaw then talked of her time working as a waitress in the 1980s, adding: “Then, when men had got a bit drunk, they thought it entirely appropriate to put their hand up your skirt.” She said she would respond by tipping a tray full of drinks on them.

For Wynter, that was “a nail in the coffin moment.” She says: “I felt personally undermined that someone who I work for could say those things.” Adding, “There was just such a callousness about her comments.”

Balshaw was criticized for her remarks. She would quickly clarify her comments on Instagram, saying:

“I am sorry if this has been misunderstood. It is absolutely not my intention to say that women are in any way to blame. To be clear, it is the perpetrators who are responsible for their behaviour and not the women who are subjected to it.”

Wynter attended a meeting with Balshaw and other Tate staff members last week. “She didn’t really apologize,” Wynter claims. She says Balshaw insisted her comments were taken out of context. Wynter specifically challenged Balshaw on the idea that confidence had anything to do with sexual harassment, saying, “You have no understanding what strength is, if you think strength is the ability to not be abused, you’re so unbelievably ignorant.”

It was soon after that meeting that Wynter realized something had to change. She handed in her resignation to the Tate’s education program on yesterday afternoon (March 7), the eve of International Women’s Day. In it, she wrote:

I hope that this is the desperate rupture needed to create and facilitate radical and urgent change. I hope that in five years I can walk through the walls of the Tate and find myself humbled and inspired, and able to work with young people in the space once more. As it stands, I walk through the buildings and I see works made by perpetrators that have no signs of being removed, whole rooms of works where I feel personally disgusted and full of rage. I cannot reconcile this within myself, and so for now, even at the huge financial risk I put myself in as a working class queer woman, I must resign.

A slow reckoning

The #MeToo movement, in which women have come forward in overwhelming numbers to speak out against sexual harassment and assault, has not left the art world unscathed. Last November, Canadian art collector François Odermatt was accused of rape by one woman and sexual harassment by others. In February, Los Angeles-based art dealer Aaron Bondaroff resigned amid claims of sexual misconduct.

This reckoning hasn’t been limited to curators. Chuck Close was also accused of sexual misconduct. In response to these allegations, National Gallery of Art in Washington cancelled the artist’s forthcoming exhibition. The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in October took the opposite approach with an exhibition of Close photography—it decided to create an adjacent gallery that “will catalyze conversations about power, gender, visibility, and voice.” Meanwhile, both New York’s Met museum and MoMA decided to continue displaying Close’s work.

Without some museums and galleries openly acknowledging the social implications of displaying works of those accused or convicted of sexual misconduct, artists like Emma Sulkowicz—best known for her “mattress protest”—have had to take up the mantle in raising awareness. She posed in front of Close’s work dressed only in underwear and self-applied asterisks, demonstrating against the New York institutions’ decision to display art by accused abusers.

But the question over what should be done with art created by those accused or convicted of sexual misconduct, doesn’t just apply to living artists, it is also extends to historical works.

Last week, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston seemed to toe the line. It opened an exhibition of Austrian painter Egon Schiele’s work (1890–1918) with new wall labels addressing the charges against him. Schiele was arrested for the kidnapping and statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl. He was acquitted but was eventually found guilty of “immorality” because the girl had seen some of his nude works in his studio.

Genevieve Berrick, an artist and co-organizer of US-based group Art Against Assault, says questions on what museums and galleries should do about the work of accused abusers are wrong. “There’s altogether too much focus in these conversations on what abusers deserve. How do we not talk about those they target?” she asks. “As a culture, we need to ask for more. We need to push back hard enough against abuse to make it so utterly unacceptable that these exhibiting spaces risk more for not talking about the violations that abusers have perpetrated.”

Things become even less clear-cut when discussing what to do with the work owned or donated by curators. The Artist Room at Tate would clearly not exist had it not been for d’Offay’s contribution—but what should be done with his work now that he’s under investigation?

Maria Balshaw, Director of The Tate.

A curator at a separate London museum, who would only speak on the condition of anonymity, said: “In the case of associates, like patrons or curators, it is difficult. I think it’s not fair to expect the gallery to contextualize either way until the case is closed. If the exhibition is in progress, or a gift has been given, and the case is open, then I think the association has happened already. If, for example, an exhibition is in the planning stage, or a gift has not be finalized, I think it is right for the gallery to step away from the partnership until the case is handled.” She adds that though curators would like to think differently, “an exhibition is the product of lots of different people across the gallery. I don’t think galleries should partner with known abusers.” That said, galleries aren’t always in the position to respond quickly and efficiently, the source says, “If the issue is acknowledged, and the right thing is done moving forwards, I think that is the best we can hope for.”

Artists also speak of huge imbalances of power in their industry. Wynter notes in her resignation letter that 13% of the Tate’s workforce identify as Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME), 9% identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual, every single director is white, and only 4% of the entire workforce identify as disabled. She adds that the highest pay band has 3% BAME, the second has 12% and the third has 7%. “What that means is that company structures, and buying power is all in the hands of people who aren’t truly invested in the experiences of identities they don’t inhabit—such as women. And that’s a situation ripe for the worst kinds of abuses of power,” Berrick says.

Travis Alabanza, performance artist and writer who was last year’s artist in residence at the Tate workshop program, told Quartz: “I think what we are seeing is a continual trend of institutions claiming and talking a talk, but failing to structurally and institutionally walk a walk. Diversity and inclusion go beyond buzz words, beyond having people appear briefly, it’s structural changes to how things work, who is paid what, how people are treated—and what happens when things fuck up. Ultimately, it’s about a care that we are not seeing.”

Berrick describes Balshaw’s comments as “a depressingly common response.” She adds, “What people seem to overlook is that the very charm that has won them over is a key part of a deliberate tactic of disguise that abusers maintain in order to isolate and create a culture of disbelief around those they have targeted, should they speak out—rather than disproving the harassment or violence, it’s actually a key part of the truth.”

Since Wynter went public with her resignation, several artists expressed support for her on Twitter. Sister Magazine, a bi-annual feminist publication, tweeted they would be cancelling the launch of their new issue at the Tate Modern.

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