Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art is prematurely closing an exhibition of photographs by Nicholas Nixon at the artist’s instruction, following allegations of sexual harassment raised by his former students at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design (MassArt). Originally scheduled to end on April 22, the show, Persistence of Vision, will be taken down when the museum closes today, a museum spokesperson told Hyperallergic.
The news, which was first reported by the blog Wonderland, is an unexpected twist in the debate over how the accusations might affect Nixon’s work. Last week, the Boston Globe published allegations by over a dozen of the photographer’s former students who described unwanted advances from him, over years, that ranged from vulgar remarks in the classroom to requests that they pose nude for him. In response to the report, the ICA Boston decided to keep the exhibition on view but address the controversy through new gallery signage as well as an online open forum.
But yesterday, the museum released a new statement based on Nixon’s personal decision. Shared on its exhibition page, which is updated to reflect the new closure, the full statement reads:
In response to the ICA’s decisions to create new gallery signage and an online forum about Nicholas Nixon’s alleged misconduct in his capacity as a professor at MassArt, the artist today sent a letter to the museum stating: “I believe it is impossible for these photographs to be viewed on their own merits any longer. In response, with deep regret, and only after careful thought, I believe it is more respectful to all concerned—to your mission, and to the work itself—to remove the exhibit as soon as possible.”
Nixon, 70, retired from his position as a photography professor at MassArt early last month after allegations of inappropriate behavior were brought to the school’s attention. An email sent from MassArt president David Nelson to students, staff, and alumni noted that because of these claims, the school hired an external consultant to investigate the possibility that Nixon violated Title IX, the federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in federally funded education programs.
The Globe‘s report detailed many allegations — from individuals who had not previously filed complaints to the university — which suggest how Nixon “suffused his classroom with sexuality.” Former students interviewed recall him asking them to pose nude for him and receiving inappropriate emails from his private account, including one woman who said Nixon recounted an erotic dream he’d had about her. Another former student described one class when Nixon brought students “he really wanted to photograph shirtless” into an office, one-by-one, where he photographed them. He later presented the images in class.
In a statement sent to the Globe, Nixon acknowledged that his behavior was inappropriate. “I realize that I should have censored myself more,” he said. “To those students, I offer my profound apology.”
His attorney, Bruce Singal, added, “The conduct we’re aware of was strictly consensual. It is alarming to me that the school is seeming now to take a completely different posture than at any time in the previous 42 years.”
The ongoing investigation raised many questions for the ICA, where Persistence of Vision has been on view since last December. Organized around Nixon’s most famous series, The Brown Sisters, which features portraits of the artist’s wife with her three sisters, it also includes his images of landscapes and individuals with AIDS. Last week, the ICA launched an open forum on its website, explaining that it decided to keep the show on view for its final weeks. Director Jill Medvedow and chief curator Eva Respini explained their own thoughts behind the decision and also welcomed its staff to share opinions on the matter. The page has since been deleted (although a web cache remains accessible as of this writing). The ICA did not respond to Hyperallergic’s inquiries into why the forum was taken down, rather than archived and kept publicly available.
In her post, Respini grappled with whether she could still love Nixon’s photography and examined her role and responsibility as a curator. “With these allegations, I am faced with some difficult questions,” she wrote. “Does the work of an artist accused of questionable behavior need to be revisited or re-contextualized?” She continued:
What is my role as I consider the allegations about an artist that I put on view in ‘my’ museum? What is my responsibility and response, as woman and a feminist? As a champion of artists? As a public figure who serves audiences that include MassArt students, alumni, and faculty? If we see art through the lens of an artist’s conduct or beliefs, do we strip it of its intrinsic worth?
She concluded by stating that she has more questions than answers, although she believes museums should be “safe spaces for open dialogue and debate.”
Almost all the other comments, whose authors are identified only as “ICA Staff Member,” express outrage and shame at the museum’s initial decision to leave the show up.
“By keeping this exhibition on view and by twisting this decision to be about public discourse, the ICA as an institution is silencing the voices of those who have come forward to name Nicholas Nixon as an abuser,” one staffer wrote. “This demonstrates the ICA has no intention of upholding the radical values it touts in its mission statement and most recent strategic plan.”
Another staffer described how they “could no longer feel safe within the walls of the institution I work in, when ‘we’ decided to take the side of predator versus the side of the victims.
“Instead of holding space for the victims, we chose to continue to give this man a platform to show his work and in turn, continue to support him,” they wrote. “As a woman who works at the ICA, I am sickened by this.”
Two others claimed that they were aware of Nixon’s behavior, with one describing it as “an open secret within the Boston art community.” One post, written by a staffer who once audited a class taught by Nixon, defended the photographer, describing him as “part of an older generation that is [sic] seems was more open to these matters.” They added that judgment should not be passed until “the completion of a thorough investigation.”
ICA Boston’s initial decision to leave the exhibition open is reminiscent of one by the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA), which was hosting an exhibition of Chuck Close’s photographs when sexual harassment allegations against him surfaced. PAFA elected to keep the show up, but supplemented it with a companion display on power and gender dynamics. Nixon’s recent decision to close his own show, however, in the wake of harassment allegations, is unprecedented.
Nixon is one of two former professors to recently leave MassArts after students brought forth complaints of sexual misbehavior against them. On March 29, filmmaker Saul Levine posted a 30-minute Facebook Live video in which he says he was forced out of the school. Last month, he recalls, administrators received word from students who say he crossed a line when he showed them one of his experimental films, which features Levine having sex with his partner. Nelson, MassArts’s president, declined to provide further details but said in a statement, according to Artforum, that “no faculty member has been forced to retire over matters of academic freedom.” The National Coalition Against Censorship cast the episode in much starker terms, expressing its concern that such incidents will squash academic freedom and concluding: “Students should feel safe from personal abuse and discrimination, but the ideas they are exposed to should not have to be safe.”