Opinion

A Lack of Accountability at Artforum’s Panel on “Art, Activism and Accountability”

An art worker offers their take, saying: “We cannot hold those in power to account without a redistribution of that power.”

How Soon Is Now: Art, Activism and Accountability with panelists Claire Bishop, Tania Bruguera, Nan Goldin, Tobi Haslett, and Anne Pasternak, and moderated by David Velasco (photo by the author)

“When is art a space for improving the world, and when is it a cover for nefarious activities?” asked the press release for Artforum’s event How Soon Is Now: Art, Activism and Accountability, held at the New School last Thursday. Considering Artforum’s involvement in an on-going defamation lawsuit filed by former employee Amanda Schmitt against Knight Landesman, I find this question to be bonkers. Schmitt’s case, now being appealed, details the sexual harassment she experienced from her former boss, a partial owner of the magazine. The press release is almost too knowing; perhaps editor-in-chief David Velasco is making a nod to the criticisms of any transformations at Artforum being merely surface level.

I worked for Artforum International Magazine for four years in their circulation department, and held the same position as Amanda Schmitt. While I was not at Artforum while Schmitt was there, I was loudly opposed to their mishandling of Schmitt’s sexual harassment-related case, and was eventually encouraged by my supervisors to quit. Knight Landesman’s resignation as publisher did not change the fundamental problems at the publication; management continued to foster an unsafe work environment.

In fact, in the panel’s introduction, Velasco did reference his magazine’s issues with accountability, but decided to shelf it in the context of bygone problem addressed over a year ago: “Someone official asked me as we prepared this panel: ‘How can you point fingers?’,” he told the audience. “My answer is simple: I can’t. And right now that might be the best thing I have to offer.” With “accountability” firmly off the table, and the news cycle currently focused on the museums, it seems the audience is in for that typical, tired discussion contrasting “art” and “activism.”

Luckily, panelists Nan Goldin and Claire Bishop brought the fire. Goldin’s group PAIN (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) has gotten several institutions to refuse all future Sackler funding, and is planning to work with Vocal New York, a grassroots organization that helps build power with people affected by the war on drugs, to hopefully make a difference in harm reduction as well: “We shamed some people, and we got museums to stop taking money. But, ultimately, PAIN is not just about shaming filthy rich bastards — it’s also about trying to address the crisis in a real way.”

During the panel, one of the panelists and director of the Brooklyn Museum, Anne Pasternak, was forced to reconcile with Elizabeth A. Sackler, founder of the Center for Feminist Art at her museum. Pasternak contended that there is such thing as a “good” Sackler, but Goldin says she believes they are all complicit. As a trans person in the audience, I was going mad, but my immediate thought was addressed when Goldin suggested Elizabeth A. could change her last name if she was really serious about severing ties with her family.

When Warren Kanders, the Whitney Museum of American Art board member and tear gas baron, was invoked by Goldin, Velasco asks the director, “Why do people join boards?” Pasternak admitted there is money and influence in the position, she also believed “they care about the mission of the museum” — as though those two reasons aren’t diametrically opposed. She declared the crisis at The Whitney “complicated” and refused to make a direct comment on the situation.

Claire Bishop, a British art historian, tagged in with a question about the protests led by the Brooklyn Anti-Gentrification Network aimed at Pasternak’s museum for hosting 2015 Brooklyn Real Estate Summit — but if you are still trying to find accountability at the “accountability” panel, keep looking. Pasternak’s response reads like a parody of liberal platitudes: “We have to look at the larger issues of how our institutions have supported or played a role in systemic injustices and that our institutions lean into this present moment and do better. We must do better, and that’s the conversation I’m most interested in.” For many, “doing better” would include an actual apology for hosting an expensive brunch for the real estate speculators responsible for the displacement of vulnerable populations the Brooklyn Museum is supposed to serve, but go off queen!

Excuse me for being rude, but I feel like we are stuck in a time loop. Is that what a complete lack of progress feels like? Again, from the panel’s press release: “How can artists and the systems that support them rise to the occasion? Are museums places of enlightenment, and if so, should they be held to higher standards than other organizations?” These are such basic questions that they are actually regressive compared to the institutional critique recorded at the first Open Hearing by the Art Workers Coalition in 1969. This is a losing framework that throws away the groundwork already laid out by historical leftist organizing.

What if art wasn’t a glorified tax write off for the wealthy and instead was treated as the public necessity we all know it to be? The contradictions are becoming clear: an art institution famously bad at accountability decides to host a panel on the topic. The people in positions of power at these institutions live extremely privileged lives. They are constantly rubbing elbows with the highest echelon power: your politicians, oil execs, Saudi royalty, all of the cartoon villain versions of rich people that are real and supporting the arts. Perhaps this is why the middle managers of the art world refuse to position themselves as part of the problem. We need them to understand their placement if they are serious about accountability. The globalized neoliberal hell market has fully realized the flexibility of art, but we can use that flexibility as well. We cannot hold those in power to account without a redistribution of that power. It will take risk and effort, but we can build institutions that are glorious examples of what an accountable workplace can look like.

Furthermore, redistribution from a third party bureaucracy is not sufficient; a certification or legal process are not sustainable forms of accountability. I am skeptical of Nan Goldin’s announcement of a board guidelines project with Hito Steyerl (Steyerl’s recent show, Power Plants at London’s Serpentine Sackler gallery, addressed PAIN’s demands by removing the Sackler name in its augmented reality feature). This idea is similar, as an audience member pointed out, to W.A.G.E.’s aestheticized testimonial process. Guidelines on a pretty website do nothing to address systemic power imbalances, especially without the people power to uphold them. These ideas are far too ethereal and individualistic to make a tangible impact.

Left out of the panel entirely were the major wins and expansion to art and cultural workers’ rights made by unions, and worker cooperatives (MEANS TV, The Glory Society). Workers need to take control, power must be evenly distributed, and there must be an outside movement to demand the same of all institutions. There is hope in new art workers unions being formed all the time, as well as in the important museum worker salary share document that has been circulating since Friday.

These are among the points I tried to synthesize in my comment to the panel, which I ended by saying; “To an editor-in-chief or museum director, $500 is a new shirt to you, but to your lowest-rung workers, it’s life or death.” That disparity allows exploitation to thrive, and it is incumbent on us to demand nothing less than a redistributed society.

Most importantly, I would like to thank writer Valerie Werder, one of the women named in the lawsuit against Landesman, for doing the extremely brave task an entire auditorium at The New School were too afraid to do, and directly call out Artforum’s complete failure to take responsibility for their role in harboring and covering up abuse of power.

“As you know, rather than taking accountability for harboring a known sexual harasser, Artforum moved to dismiss Amanda Schmitt’s lawsuit against the magazine,” Werder said. “She recently filed an appeal to the court’s decision to dismiss the case, and Artforum‘s response is due in two weeks. Does Artforum plan on finally taking accountability for Landesman’s sexual harassment of hundreds of people over many decades, or will the magazine move to dismiss Schmitt’s appeal again?”

These are the moments where change can actually happen, and was such a relief after such a sad display of liberal fecklessness. Artforum leadership owes Valerie Werder, all of the people abused by Landesman, as well as their former and current staff a proper response.

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