The Royal Academy of Arts (RA) has issued an apology to embroidery artist Jess de Wahls after a furore over its decision to remove her work from its online shop because of what the gallery called her “transphobic views”.
In a statement, the RA said: “There has been a great deal of debate around the RA’s recent communication about no longer stocking the work of Jess de Wahls in the Royal Academy shop. We have thought long and hard since then about this and the wider issues it raises. One thing is clear to us now – we should have handled this better.
“We have apologised to Jess de Wahls for the way we have treated her and do so again publicly now. We had no right to judge her views on our social media. This betrayed our most important core value – the protection of free speech.”
The gallery said a “failure of communications internally” had resulted in de Wahls first hearing via social media that her products would no longer be stocked. “We will now reopen discussions with her regarding the restocking of her work,” it said.
The statement continued: “Plurality of voices, tolerance and free thinking are at the core of what we stand for and seek to protect. These events raise some fundamental issues. Freedom of expression can open up debate, create empathy or respect for difference, it can also at times cause hurt and outrage.
“This has confirmed to us our commitment to freedom of expression and to addressing complex issues through engagement and debate.
“We will continue to reflect on this and to look at our internal processes to ensure we learn from it. We want to make sure we navigate this better in future.”
In an interview with UnHerd shortly before the announcement, de Wahls said the fact that “a major arts institution would treat me like that is absolutely unprecedented”. She later told the BBC that she had accepted the apology.
The RA's U-turn has been criticised by some. Students at the Royal Academy Schools released a statement saying they were “angered and disheartened that the Royal Academy has chosen to give legitimacy to transphobia”, adding that “freedom of speech does not mean hate speech”.
Writer and journalist Marc Burrows said: “Disappointing to see them row this back while showing the Pride flag in their avatar. JDW's blog was transphobic dross, and the RA have every right to distance themselves from an artist like that.”
But Evening Standard journalist and political commentator Ayesha Hazarika said: “It’s right the RA have apologised. This should be a lesson to leaders to not panic and shut down debate and discussion on gender, sex and identity. This is a complex issue with strong feelings on both sides. Rushing to pick one and cancelling people is not the answer.”
Artist Rachel Ara, who pulled out of the RA’s summer show in solidarity with de Wahls, wrote: “Breaking news - female artists are allowed to have opinions.”