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Over 1,800 Artists and Art Workers Sign Letter Against Sexual Harassment [UPDATE 2]

The public letter criticizes “an art world that upholds inherited power structures at the cost of ethical behavior.”

The phrase, which was popularized by artist Jenny Holzer in the 1980s, was included on the website and in the letter of a group declaring they will no longer stand for sexual harassment. The phrase has become ubiquitous today and here they are spray painted on a wall in Hamburg. (image courtesy Sebastian Bartoschek’s Flickrstream)

Over 1,800 women, trans people, and non-gender conforming “gallerists, artists, writers, editors, curators, directors, arts administrators, assistants, and interns” have already signed a letter in the wake of the sexual harassment allegations against Artforum publisher Knight Landesman. The letter, which was published on the Guardian website yesterday and is hosted on the not-surprised.org website started as an informal chat among colleagues on social media and soon ballooned to include hundreds of female “workers of the art world.” The Guardian published hundreds of names on their site, while the website has the full list and is much more extensive.

The letter is an indictment against the culture of sexual harassment that allowed the situation at Artforum to develop and it outlines the many ways this abusive culture has manifested itself for individuals in the workplace. They write:  “… 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.”

Quoting a famous line by Jenny Holzer, the letter also declares: “Abuse of power comes as no surprise.”

The letter also questions the dedication of those in the arts community who espouse progressive politics while preserving the status quo:

Many institutions and individuals with power in the art world espouse the rhetoric of feminism and equity in theory, often financially benefiting 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.

Hyperallergic asked one of the artists who signed the letter, Coco Fusco, why many felt now was the time for such a public declaration. “I guess now is the time because there is widespread media attention to sexual harassment in the workplace. I imagine the originators of the letter want to push for a deeper probe of the industry beyond the case of Knight Landsman,” she explained. “Personally I wish more attention was paid in the letter to sexual predation in BFA and MFA programs. The problem begins in art school. At some point I guess I will have to write about how this corrodes the learning environment.”

According to the New York Times, the letter “emerged out of a group WhatsApp chat among ten members of the art community [on] Oct. 24. Within 24 hours, the number of participants had ballooned to more than 125.”

The open letter is now online and includes a form for anyone who would like to add their name. The letter is “dedicated to the memory of feminist art historian Linda Nochlin (1931-2017), whose activism, spirit, and pioneering writings have been an inspiration for our work.” Linda Nochlin, the noted feminist art historian, passed away this past weekend. Her essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” was a pivotal work of art history that had a profound impact on the field.

UPDATE, October 30, 12:32pm EST: Hyperallergic spoke to one of the organizers of the letter, Laura McLean-Ferris, who is a curator at the Swiss Institute, and asked why she felt that the letter was important to organize now and what she thinks might be next steps, or the impact, of such a letter. She responded:

As an initial group of women, trans, and non-gender conforming people, we were motivated to make a show of solidarity for those who are speaking out and those who have not felt able to do so. Importantly we wanted to provide an original definition of sexual harassment that people working in art could consult or point to, which was written by a group of volunteers and drew on the experiences of the group. It has been a deeply thoughtful and generously-spirited endeavor, and something I think that has raised our hopes is the possibility of continuing to work together to effect deeper systemic change. We know it takes time. The letter is the beginning of a process and we are working on the next phase.

Hyperallergic was also notified that there are currently over 3,000 signatures to the open letter.

UPDATE 2, October 30, 5:40pm EST: Due to overwhelming response to the request for signature, the organizers have decided to temporarily close down the form until further notice:

UPDATE: Signatures will be closed at 12 AM PST. Please stay tuned for further action. #notsurprised

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