Thousands sign letter condemning sexual harassment in the art world

Jonathan Knott, 01.11.2017
MA calls for policies to prevent systemic abuse
Almost 10,000 people working in the international art world have signed a letter condemning sexual harassment in the field, and resolving to speak out about abuses of power.

The letter, which more than 9,500 people have now put their names to, appeared on Monday in the Guardian newspaper. It is also posted on a website, Not Surprised, and has associated social media accounts. Signatories include the Turner Prize winner Helen Marten, art dealer and gallery owner Sadie Coles, and photographer Cindy Sherman.

“We are not surprised,” the letter begins. “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, 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.”

The letter stems from discussions that followed allegations about Knight Landesman, a co-publisher of the US magazine Artforum.

Landesman resigned last week after a lawsuit was filed accusing him of harassing at least nine women. But the letter stressed that the issue was systemic.

“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 behaviour,” it read. “Similar abuses occur frequently and on a large scale within this industry. We have been silenced, ostracised, pathologised, dismissed as ‘overreacting,’ and threatened when we have tried to expose sexually and emotionally abusive behaviour. 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.”

Sharon Heal, the director of the Museums Association (MA), said: “It really comes as no surprise that sexism and sexual harassment is so dominant in the art world. Our data shows that the majority of staff in museums and galleries are women yet the majority of leaders are men. This imbalance puts power in the hands of those leaders and sometimes that power is abused.

“The MA has been actively campaigning for equality, diversity and inclusion in the sector and that applies to the workforce as well as audiences. Boards, leaders and senior representatives of the sector need to not only speak out but also make sure there are policies and programmes in place that can help prevent this systemic abuse.”

The Not Surprised website said that it had stopped adding signatories to the list yesterday after receiving an “overwhelming response”.

“We are strategising all the next steps and action items that have been generated by this open discussion,” says the site. “We are awed by your response and encourage you to keep this conversation going”.

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