Art Market

Women Recount Decades of Sexual Harassment and Assault in the Art World

Anna Louie Sussman and Tess Thackara
Nov 16, 2017 9:59PM

Betty Tompkins, Dear Betty…., 2013. Courtesy of the artist.

It’s hard to call recent revelations of sexual harassment in the art world “revelations,” a word that implies something previously unknown. Indeed, the overwhelming response from women and others in the industry was summed up elegantly by the hashtag #NotSurprised. Why are we not surprised? For as long as men have had power over women—that is to say, millennia—some of them have abused that power. That instinct traverses time, space, and industry. Women have also been routinely discouraged from careers in the arts. When, years ago, Martha Wilson approached her mentor for advice about being an artist, for instance, he responded: “Women don’t make it in the art world.” Artsy spoke to other women who came up in the art world in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s about their experiences with sexism and harassment, and what they hope will change in the future. These personal accounts have been condensed and edited, and anonymity has been granted where requested.

I’m 72, and I’ve never seen anything like this. Although, I’m really not surprised because you cannot be female and not know about this, or have been exposed to it in some very personal way. When I was an undergraduate student, a teacher said to me, “What are you going to do after you graduate?” I said, “I’m going to go to New York and become an artist.” He said, “Well, the only way you’re going to make it is on your back.” That’s not only a harassing thing to say; it’s sexual terrorism.

The first time I had an appointment with a dealer in his office, when I got out of the elevator, I was so scared that I went to the bathroom and threw up. As it turned out, he was a guy in his seventies, and he was gay. But all I kept hearing in my head was that teacher. I never forgot it. I was always cautious. I never drank at openings. In the days of the Lower East Side, and even before that, if I went to a very crowded opening, it was like grope central. Who was going to know? When I was in my twenties and thirties and I had studio visits, I was never alone. When people came to my studio, if my husband or a boyfriend were not available to be somewhere with me in the loft, I had a friend come over.

That fact that my work had sexual content in it—I thought that was just the cherry on top. One time, a dealer brought a collector to my studio and the guy bought a piece right there on the spot. It was for so little money, the dealer didn’t even take a commission. And the guy said, “Bring it over to my place this evening,” and gave me his address. His face fell when I walked in with my husband. You don’t have to be an idiot to foresee this. Why would I be in this man’s house with a 30-by-40-inch airbrushed image from my “Fuck” series and expect nothing to happen? I was really scared. But I made huge, huge efforts to be cautious.

Gossip is the lingua franca of the art world. You knew who was a gropey kind of guy, who was a problem. Other artists would tell you, “So and so’s coming to your studio. He’s a little handsy, watch out.” They wouldn’t do it publicly, because they could damage any career that they had going, which in those days for women was not much. We knew these guys wouldn’t face consequences. The ones we’re finding out about now are after what—20, 30, 40 years. These women coming forward saying: “No one would have believed me.” Well, they were right. Nobody would have. Everybody would have looked at them badly, like they had caused it. If something happened to you, you provoked it. The guy was never responsible for controlling his dick. It was like, “I can’t help it, I’m a guy.”

You know, when I first met Bill, my husband, we went out to dinner one night with his college mentor—a guy who was very important to him. We’re walking home, and I feel a hand on my ass, and I thought: Oh isn’t that nice, Bill’s grabbing my ass. Then I realized my arm was in his arm. It was his mentor! I pushed Bill into the middle so he couldn’t touch me. When we got home, I told Bill, and he said, “Well that’s the way this guy is.” The next time I saw him, he comes towards me with his arms open on the street, and I said: “Uh uh, you are never, ever to touch me, in any way. Are we clear?” And he said, “Yes.” I will tell you that in 40 years, he has never shaken my hand. He’s quite elderly and frail now, but I could take him down in a second.

Elisa*, writer

I was working as what they used to call, in the mid-’80s, a “gallery monkey.” It was me and the guys hanging the shows. I was the receptionist. I was young, 21 years old, naive, just out of college. People would come into the gallery—it wasn’t just the ad salesman and then-publisher at Artforum, although he was one of the worst—it was collectors, curators, artists, I could go down the list. I don’t want to name names, but there were big artists who would come in and make comments, or invite me out for a drink.

Collectors, too. They’d come in the galleries, look around, and they’d say, “Ah, I’m really interested in buying this—let’s go next door and have a glass of wine, and talk about art.” That’s why the Landesman thing and the [Harvey] Weinstein thing made me crazy. They’d use my interest in art to get me in a situation where I understood that they have power and money, and I’m just a receptionist, and I need the job. I’m making minimum wage, barely, and trying to save up for grad school.

I met Knight when he came into the gallery. It was across from the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, so anytime there was something happening at the MCA, people would come across the street and they would look around the gallery, and I was paid to show them around and talk about the exhibition we had on. I think I met him at one of the openings, and he came in maybe the next day. It was super, super, creepy, because I’m being friendly—that’s my job. But then he asks me where I live, and what’s my address, and what’s my personal phone number, and could he come over. At that point, I’m just out of college, I live with my parents in this suburb of Chicago. And he said, “I’ll come out there and we can go out.” I mean, really so aggressive.

He wanted to go back in the store room and see what we had in there. And that’s normal, collectors may want to buy something that’s not showing, so we take them back and show them the other works we have. The feeling was very aggressive, he was kind of insinuating about some of the things I was showing him. There was an undertone of sexual aggression. And that’s the real tricky thing about this whole story—these guys prey on young women who are naive. If I’m nice to them, and talking to them, then they think, “Okay, this is a potential relationship, or whatever.” Sexual harassment doesn’t need to be physical, it can be verbal. Journalists, writers, actors are particularly good at using their words. [Ed. note: Landesman did not respond to a request for comment.]

In the art world, you have openings, and you go and you have a glass of wine or champagne, and if you’re young and generally nice-looking, it pulls all these guys in. It’s a whole culture. And also because in the art world it’s more sexually free; a lot of artists talk about sexuality, bodies, nudes, in their work, so automatically there’s a sort of undertone, an unspoken thing, that anyone who’s involved in the art world is more sexually free. So if you’re a woman in that climate, it’s more dangerous.

The owner of the gallery, she was a woman, but she was old school, so for her that was normal. She didn’t want to talk about those kinds of things, she didn’t want to talk about my personal life at all, she was of the attitude: Do your job, look pretty, and shut up. There’s that famous French expression, “sois belle et tais-toi.” Just do your job.

I used to wear kind of low-cut dresses, but I stopped doing that after a certain point because I just somehow needed to look more masculine, or gender-neutral, let’s say, to not attract this kind of attention. When I was younger, I was tall and thin, and I have large breasts. On a thin frame, large breasts immediately attract attention. Instead of wearing my dresses, I just wore suits.

[Reading about the Landesman allegations] was horrible. It brought back all the memories I had buried. These are the kind of experiences you bury, and you try to just go on. But when you hear other women coming out, and saying the same thing, that’s when you say, “Oh my gosh, so it wasn’t just me.” And also, I  didn’t do anything wrong. Because I thought maybe it was my fault, maybe I had made him think I was interested, which is what we tend to do as women, especially in a harassment situation. “Oh, it was my fault because I was wearing this dress that was a little bit too low-cut, or a little bit snug, or I smiled a bit too much so maybe he got the wrong idea.”

Now everyone’s buzzing about it, but tomorrow they’ll be buzzing about something else. Our job is to keep it alive. This is ongoing, it’s been going on since my professional career began in the ’80s, and it’s still going on. We have to keep this alive and keep the voices of these people alive, to shame these guys out of behaving this way, if they have any shame. That’s the only problem. Because a lot of them don’t. They don’t even know what shame is. They can do whatever they want, because they have power.

In the ’60s and ’70s, inappropriate behavior was very prevalent. The unempowered had no credibility, and it would be suicidal for them to make these experiences public. Men felt more empowered in the’60s and ’70s than they do now, when there are more women in power.

In regards to Knight Landesman, it’s not about sex, it’s about power. He feels he has the license to put his hands wherever he chooses. In 2010, I was sitting next to him at a dinner event, and he was placing his hand on my thigh near my crotch, saying how he felt so comfortable with me because of my sexual subject matter.

My work is autobiographical; it has been about the connection between the sexual and the political, which is at the core of what I’m about. It is about my rage at injustice, and in the ’70s, I was making paintings of 9-by-30-inch large hairy screws as a metaphor for the power of the penis—not just intercourse. The penis is political power and a political weapon. The scale of my work and the screw drawings made men feel uncomfortable, I think. In fact, one dealer said that to me: “Your work makes me and men my age feel uncomfortable.”

I resent the euphemism of “inappropriate behavior” being used for crimes of sexual assault and rape. What happens is that the unempowered are dehumanized. It goes back to the primal hate for women and the mother. The #metoo and #Ihearyou and #notsurprised campaigns are fabulous as social media movements. Now it’s [Harvey] Weinstein, but before it was Clarence Thomas. Most women knew that Anita Hill was right, but the people in power have a vested interest in staying in power. Hopefully this revolution will be sustained.

Heidi*, art administrator

It makes me mad that this person is so rich and happy and that he still gets to live his life, and it was so disgusting, but of course I never did anything about it. There’s nothing I would gain—he’s not American and no one cares. He’s a really famous, rich dealer, and I was working for an American artist at the Basel art fair in 1977. We went out to dinner with the owner of a major car company, the artist, and this guy, the dealer. It was all men, and we go driving through the Black Forest, and end up in this tiny hotel with no one there and only three rooms. “Oh, there’s no room for you,” it was that kind of thing.

He insisted he sleep in the room with me, and raped me over over and over that night, multiple times. It was horrifying—and I had nowhere to go, it was not like a hotel where there was someone at the desk. It was in the middle of Black Forest, you know what I mean? I didn’t tell anybody. I didn’t tell the artist I was working for, because I think he set it up. He knew I was the only woman, they knew where they were taking me, they probably talked among themselves—like who was going to get me for the night. Then the next day, he drives me to the art fair, drops me off, and he never says anything to me…until he became my ex-husband’s dealer.

Another time, I was living in Scotland and working for an art gallery, running this program that started in Malta and ended in Edinburgh. I would travel there before everyone else and make sure we had places to stay. The first place I went was to this castle that this dirty old man lived in, he must have been an art collector, in Malta. He raped me, and I was really young, and I didn’t know anybody, and I remember running outside. There’s this square in Malta, and it was six in the morning, I’m crying, and this nice couple came up to me and said, “What’s going on?” And I said “I was just raped,” and they took me to their home. But I still had to meet everybody the next day at the guy’s house, and I never told anybody about it, not even my boss. I was 19.

None of this is new. And it really is true what everyone says, even though it sounds like such a cliche, that it feels very shameful. It was embarrassing, you kind of think it’s your fault, like, how did I end up in this situation? When I was working for the gallerist in Scotland—we would be driving through Scotland in the backseat of cars all night, and he’d take my hand and put it in his pants. I mean you just get so used to it, it’s revolting. Has it gotten better? Look at today, how women like you were raised by feminists, and women are still going through the same shit.

It’s always been, and it still is, an all boy’s club. Old men in power with young vulnerable women. When I first entered the art world in the ’70s, it was all about earth art, and they were mostly macho guys, and the dealers were the same.

—As told to Anna Louie Sussman and Tess Thackara

Anna Louie Sussman
Tess Thackara

*Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.

Artsy would like to hear from readers interested in sharing their own stories of discrimination or sexual harassment in the art world. If you’d like to be in touch, please contact Anna Louie Sussman ([email protected]) or Tess Thackara ([email protected]).