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Art World Largely Silent as Artforum and Landesman Continue to Fight Sexual Harassment-related Lawsuit

A few months after news broke about sexual harassment allegations against Knight Landesman at Artforum, some want to sweep the realities of the issue under the rug.

Knight Landesman and David Velasco attend Artists for Haiti Opening on September 8, 2011 in New York City, which is the same period Amanda Schmitt claims she was sexually harassed at Artforum. (Photo by Michael Plunkett/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images)

Sexual harassment allegations against Artforum co-owner Knight Landesman captured headlines last fall, even landing Amanda Schmitt in Time magazine as one of the “silence breakers” who have helped to shatter the workplace taboo. However, some in the art community — particularly in the commercial art world — are trying to quietly move on by ignoring the still unresolved story.

The cover of Time magazine’s “Person of the Year” edition in 2017. (via Time, Inc.)

Rachel Corbett of Artnet News has been doing an excellent job covering the lawsuit which she broke last October, but her report in December about the moves to dismiss Schmitt’s lawsuit by lawyers for both Artforum and Landesman appears to have been largely ignored by the commercial art gallery world and its beneficiaries. According to Schmitt’s lawyers, who filed rebuttals to Landesman and the magazine’s motions to dismiss her lawsuit, the publication “once again shamelessly joins forces with Landesman.” Landesman is still a co-owner of the publication, a fact confirmed in January to Hyperallergic by an Artforum spokesperson who would not disclose the percentage of his ownership.

Adding to the confusion about the ongoing court case is the fact that, in early January, New York magazine’s Jerry Saltz penned a mostly gushing, 2,400-word piece titled “I Love the New Artforum,” which reads like an attempt to absolve the publication of its recent past. Saltz cites the earliest coverage of the issue without the new developments. He quotes a statement by the publication’s newly promoted editor-in-chief, David Velasco, which ignores the continuing issue, while painting his position as somehow challenging an imaginary and inaccessible opponent (art history?) and the art world, on which Artforum has been a formative influence since the 1960s (even if that influence has waned this century). Velasco never mentions his employer, writing:

The art world is misogynist. Art history is misogynist. Also racist, classist, transphobic, ableist, homophobic. I will not accept this. Intersectional feminism is an ethics near and dear to so many on our staff. Our writers too. This is where we​ stand. There’s so much to be done. Now, we get to work.

Saltz appears to have uncritically bought Velasco’s bromides and posturing. He wrote: “And just like that, an Artforum that needed to disappear was gone.” When I asked Saltz via email if he was aware of Corbett’s reporting in December, he said he wasn’t and added that he was not a reporter, which is disingenuous at best.

Velasco has contributed to the confusion in other ways. He provided a “first interview” to Sarah Nicole Prickett for Sssense fashion magazine, which scrubs Landesman’s role at the art publication and only in a cursory way mentions that Prickett is an Artforum contributor, who has written for the magazine’s gossipy “Scene & Herd” column. Velasco and Prickett gloss over the sexual harassment claims and try to rewrite the history, discussing Velasco’s childhood bullying and other details to create a veneer of sympathy. In response to Prickett’s softball question about the sexual harassment allegations, Velasco responds:

One thing to note is the difference between “Landesman” and “Artforum,” two entities that seem to get confused. Knight Landesman was one of four publishers. And yet to many people he looked like the only publisher, or like something more than a publisher, because he was so colorful and out there. One of the things I’ve been asking myself since he resigned is: How did a cult of personality distort the picture of how things actually operate here? Did people think that Knight could get them into the magazine? He was not an editor, and editors make those decisions.

There is no mention of Landesman’s co-owership of the magazine, which was definitely true at the time of the publication of the interview, or that the publication’s legal team is echoing Landesman’s attorneys in asking that Schmitt’s case be dismissed. It’s a neat fiction packaged for an uncritical audience. What happened to the task force of women Artforum promised back in October? Velasco hasn’t offered an accountability of his role at the magazine during Schmitt’s time there, which is a period when other people have come forward to say they too were impacted by Landesman’s behavior. There is potential to change this, but currently it appears he is towing the Artforum line. On January 19, Artforum stopped responding to Hyperallergic’s emails after their spokespeople refused to provide on-the-record comments about Landesman’s ownership.

The current situation has caused confusion for many and the silence of the art community is notable. The lack of continued attention and activism is particularly startling after the emergence of Not Surprised last October, a collective of thousands of women, trans people, and non-gender conforming “gallerists, artists, writers, editors, curators, directors, arts administrators, assistants, and interns” formed specifically in response to the allegations against Landesman.

Hyperallergic reached out to Not Surprised, which last fall penned a letter in response to the allegations against Landesman that ended: “We will be silenced no longer.” The group, which includes Artforum staffers as signatories, responded:

While we do not wish to comment on the developments in an ongoing case, we support Amanda in her honorable fight against abuse of power. Not Surprised stands in solidarity with all victims of abuse and harassment.

Hyperallergic reached out to Emily Reisbaum of Clarick Gueron Reisbaum LLP, who is part of Schmitt’s legal team for their perspective on the issue, since Schmitt’s voice has been excluded from much of the recent news coverage around Artforum — with the exception of Artnet News’s extensive coverage.

“We are surprised and disappointed that Artforum and Landesman remain linked and chose to fight Amanda Schmitt rather than acknowledge their misconduct,” Schmitt’s attorneys told Hyperallergic. “As we allege in our complaint, Artforum harbored Landesman for years, even when they knew that he was a sexual harasser. We see no evidence of remorse or a change in culture — and we suspect that the art world does not either.”

Reisbaum added:

It is hypocritical for Artforum to claim it is transforming itself and embracing feminist ideals, while simultaneously seeking to throw out Schmitt’s lawsuit and erase her harassment allegations. Amanda Schmitt stood alone and forced Artforum to admit that it was sheltering a predatory sexual harasser. Rather than thanking her for bringing an awful episode to light, Artforum continues to try to silence her. This is morally wrong and diametrically opposed to the purported effort ‘to transform Artforum into a place of transparency, equity, and with zero tolerance for sexual harassment of any kind.’

Regardless of what those affiliated with Artforum may claim in public, the publication (along with Landesman) continues to fight Schmitt in the courts — a fact some members of the art establishment are ignoring. Why?

Artforum must think their readers and advertisers are too short-sighted to understand their hypocrisy,” Reisbaum told Hyperallergic. “We hope the art world will prove them wrong, and refuse to accept rhetoric over reality.”

All these developments seem particularly strange at a time when the art community has claimed to be increasingly sensitive to the exclusion of women from the art historical canon, museums, and commercial gallery spaces. I reached out to artist Micol Hebron, who has been observing and making art work about sexism and gender inequality in the art world for years, to ask her what she thought about the state of sexual harassment claims in the art world, and the Schmitt case in particular.

“I think with the Artforum case, there’s probably a situation in which so many people are so ‘beholden’ to that magazine for various reasons, that they are subconsciously reluctant to let it go or disavaow it (the mechanisms and machinations of art world value-making run deep and are a tangled mess.),” Hebron told Hyperallergic via email. “I think that we are STILL reluctant to talk about money; people get uncomfortable when we equate the damages of sexual harassment to money — but in many ways, that’s ultimately what it’s about — gender/identity-based oppression within a world and context of patriarchal, heteronormative, capitalism is all about power relationships, and one — such as Knight [Landesman] — wields their power over others (such as Amanda [Schmitt]) in ways that ultimately result in the … suppression of the victims’ ability to succeed in that world (emotionally, financially, socially, etc.) … but — for me, that’s one of the things this is about. By suing outright, Amanda is calling out that system and saying: ‘I deserve reparations!'”

The October 25, 2017 statement published on the publication’s website (via artforum.com)

She does think some things may be changing. “There has been a shift in the conversation, and people’s language is starting to change. Before Anita Hill spoke out against Clarence Thomas — we didn’t have the phrase ‘sexual harassment’ — so folks didn’t even know that what they were experiencing was a ‘thing,’ and could have a name. I think that sometimes a shift in culture can start with a shift in language,” Hebron said.

New beginnings often start with a truthful assessment of a situation. But it would seem Artforum has not followed through on their promise of being a “place of transparency, equity, and with zero tolerance for sexual harassment of any kind,” which they trumpeted on their website in October.

Artforum and Knight Landesman requested that the Court ‘strike’ all allegations that relate to Landesman’s harassment — including the allegations about Amanda’s and the other victims’ experiences,” Reisbaum explained. “‘Striking’ means that the Court would erase all of those allegations from the complaint. In our opposition to Artforum’s and Landesman’s motions, we explain that these allegations are crucial background to Amanda’s retaliation and slander claims and are central to the case.”

Nevertheless, Schmitt’s legal team remains hopeful. “We look forward to Artforum and Landesman being held accountable for their conduct,” they said. “We expect the Court will deny the motions to dismiss, and then we will proceed to discovery that will expose the sweeping breadth of Landesman’s predatory harassment of Amanda and dozens of other women, more of whom reach out to us every week.”

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