In a court hearing Tuesday, August 27, multiple women who say they have been sexually abused by billionaire Jeffery Epstein shared their stories with a federal judge. The defendant, however, was missing from the hearing, after dying in his cell while awaiting a sex trafficking trial in Manhattan. His death was ruled a suicide by a coroner. Meanwhile, new details emerging about the nefarious lifestyle and questionable relationships of the sex offender shed more light on his expansive network of connections in the art world.
In the weeks since his arrest, several reports in the media have revealed bits and pieces of Epstein’s links to the art world, from his bizarre and disturbing art collection (including a painting depicting President Bill Clinton in Monica Lewinsky’s infamous blue dress) to his personal friendships with movers and shakers in the field. But two recent revelations involving the New York Academy of Art (NYAA) and MIT Media Lab provide for a deeper insight into Epstein’s involvement in the arts.
Epstein’s Relationship to the New York Academy of Art
Until recently, it was a little known fact that between 1987 and 1994, Epstein had served as a board member at the New York Academy of Art (NYAA), a private graduate-level art school in lower Manhattan. According to an interview published by Mother Jones, Epstein was a close friend of Stuart Pivar, the art collector who co-founded the academy with Andy Warhol in 1979. Pivar, now 89-years-old, told Mother Jones that Epstein was his “best pal for decades” until he learned about his friend’s sexual misconduct from accuser Maria Farmer. Still, Pivar expressed his anger at the media coverage of the case, claiming that Epstein was “profoundly sick.”
It was at the New York Academy of Art that Epstein met Maria Farmer, a student at the academy who would later become one of his alleged victims. The two met in 1995 when Farmer was 25. In a court filing in April, Farmer said she and her 15-year-old sister were sexually assaulted by Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell, who is accused of soliciting underage girls for Epstein (Maxwell has not been charged with a crime and has repeatedly denied the accusations against her).
In a New York Times report published on Monday, August 26, Farmer revealed that she reported Epstein’s sexual misconduct to the New York Police Department (NYPD), and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in 1996 but to no avail. Farmer also said she complained to Eileen Guggenheim, who was then the dean of the New York Academy of Art, about Epstein’s behavior. She says Guggenheim was the one to introduce her to Epstein and Maxwell, and urged her to sell the billionaire a painting at a discount. Guggenheim, who’s now chair of the academy’s board, told the New York Times she does not recall such a conversation.
Soon after their first meeting, Epstein hired Farmer as an art advisor of sorts. During that time, the billionaire invited Farmer’s young sister Annie to his ranch in New Mexico, leading her and her mother, Janice Swain, to believe that she would be vacationing with a group of students visiting the ranch. Instead, Annie found herself alone with Epstein and Maxwell, were she claims she was subjected to an inappropriate massage by Maxwell.
Later on, Epstein arranged for Maria Farmer to work on an art project at the Ohio mansion of his friend Leslie Wexner, the billionaire businessman, major donor to the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, and Victoria’s Secret founder. It was there that Farmer claims she was sexually assaulted by both Epstein and Maxwell.
In the months that followed, Farmer shared her story with art world figures, including the painter Eric Fischl, who was her mentor at the time. Fischl recalled his conversations with Farmer on the issue in an interview with the New York Times. “I just kept telling Maria, ‘You’ve got to get out of there. You’ve got to get out of there,’” Fischl told the Times. It wasn’t until 2006, during the first FBI investigation into allegations of sex trafficking by Epstein, that Farmer’s complaints received attention from the authorities.
David Kratz, president of the New York Academy of Art, released a public statement yesterday, August 28, denying any knowledge of Farmer’s complaints. “The academy is appalled by this tragic situation. However, allegations that anyone in our administration or board knew of or enabled this horrific abuse are not true,” Kratz writes. “Had we known at the time the seriousness of the situation, we would have urged Maria to report the Ohio assault to law enforcement and done everything we could to support her in seeking justice.”
Kratz disclosed in his statement that after returning to New York after serving his prison sentence in Florida, Epstein purchased tickets to one fundraising event in 2012 and two events in 2014. The registered sex offender also made a donation of $30,000 to the academy in 2014. “There was no inappropriate contact or behavior during this time period that we know of,” Kratz asserted. “However with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight we wish we had barred him from the premises.” Kratz added that the academy is considering publishing new guidelines “to assist students for how they can and should interact with art collectors.”
MIT acknowledges a “mistake in judgment”
Since 1999, Epstein made $800,000 in donations to the MIT Media Lab, a research laboratory for technology, arts, and design at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, according to the New York Times. On August 15, Joichi Ito, director of the MIT Media Lab, publicly apologized for his ties to Epstein. “I want you to know that in all of my interactions with Epstein, I was never involved in, never heard him talk about, and never saw any evidence of the horrific acts that he was accused of,” Ito wrote in a statement published on the MITMedia Lab website. “That said, I take full responsibility for my error in judgment. I am deeply sorry to the survivors, to the Media Lab, and to the MIT community for bringing such a person into our network,” he added. Ito vowed to raise an amount equivalent to the donations the Media Lab received from Epstein and to be directed to nonprofits that help survivors of sex trafficking. He also promised to return money that Epstein had invested in personal Tech-related investment funds that he runs outside MIT.
A week after Ito’s apology, MIT announced that it will investigate its ties to Epstein. MIT’s president, L. Rafael Reif, acknowledged a “mistake in judgment” in an interview with the New York Times. “With hindsight, we recognize with shame and distress that we allowed MIT to contribute to the elevation of his reputation, which in turn served to distract from his horrifying acts,” he said.
In response to the news, two professionals have ended their affiliation with the Media Lab. Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Media Lab’s Center for Civic Media, resigned in protest to the university connections with Epstein. J. Nathan Matias, a professor at Cornell University who works at the Lab as a visiting scholar, has resigned as well.
The List Goes On
In July, the New York Post reported that Epstein was a board member at the Leon Black Family Foundation, a non-profit established by the chairman of the Museum of Modern Art’s board of trustees. Epstein appeared on the list of board members years after his conviction as a sex offender as part of a plea deal in 2008. A spokesperson on behalf of the Black family told Bloomberg that Epstein resigned from the foundation in July 2007 to the family’s request and that his name kept appearing in the filings due to a “recording error.”
As Hyperallergic reported in July, Epstein stayed with the Black Family Foundation through the end of 2012, four years after he pleaded guilty in 2008 to two charges of soliciting prostitution — one involving a minor — which resulted in a sweetheart deal of only 18-months with 13 served.