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Open Letter Asks Swiss Institute to Address Domestic Violence Claims Against Artist

“How should we, as a community, address these kinds of troubling claims?” the group asks, referencing an ongoing court case against Swiss artist Tobias Madison.

The Swiss Institute of New York in 2014 at its previous location on Wooster Street. (via Wikimedia Commons)

More than 50 artists, writers, and curators have signed a “Letter of Concern” directly addressed to “members of the staff and board of the Swiss Institute,” citing domestic violence charges against Tobias Madison, an artist who’s currently participating in the institute’s exhibition Life and Limbs. The letter was also addressed to the exhibition’s curator, Anna-Sophie Berger, and “artists participating in the show.” Madison, a Basel, Switzerland-born artist based in New York and Zurich, is facing charges of domestic abuse against his former partner in an ongoing criminal case against him in a New York court.

According to the New York State Unified Court System, Madison was arrested in March of this year for an incident that occurred on December 1, 2018. The charges against Madison include assault with the intent to cause injury, criminal obstruction of breath and applying pressure, attempted an assault, and harassment. The next hearing in the case is scheduled for October 16.

“While a verdict has not yet been reached in court, we take these accusations seriously, and we believe a conversation about them must take place,” the open letter reads. “How should we, as a community, address these kinds of troubling claims? We defer to you. Ignoring them is not the answer.” The list of signatories includes writers Francisco Goldman and Veronica Gonzalez Peña, curators Ivana Dizdar and Alice Centamore, and artists Seung-Min Lee, Max Maslansky, and Keren Benbenisty, among others.

In April of this year, textile designer Arati Rao sent a missive to Swiss Institute administrators condemning the institute’s relationship to Madison. “He beat and strangled his girlfriend and gave her a concussion,” Rao wrote of Madison. “Tobias is facing jail time, deportation, has a restraining order against him, and is on public record in the State of New York for being a criminal offender of multiple violent crimes.”

“As an independent non-profit with a board, patrons, and as the recipient of grants and public funding, Swiss Institute states that it is ‘committed to the highest standards of curatorial and educational excellence,'” Rao’s letter continued.  “I hope that Swiss Institute will act responsibly and with its own mission in mind when showing and supporting artists in the community.” Rao alleged that Madison’s Los Angeles gallery, Freedman Fitzpatrick, has stopped representing the artist for his “history of abuse.” After this story was first published, a representative from Freedman Fitzpatrick emailed Hyperallergic to say the gallery’s decision to end its relationship with Madison had “absolutely nothing to do with his private life.”

“The Swiss Institute knew about this for months, but they went ahead and included [Madison] in the show with this information,” said Kate Wolf, a Los Angeles-based writer and editor who organized the recent open letter, in a phone conversation with Hyperallergic. Wolf is a close friend and a former collaborator with the alleged victim.

The Swiss Institue referred Hyperallergic to a response it sent to the letter’s authors, saying:

Swiss Institute understands the gravity of these accusations, but we are not able to comment or respond regarding an ongoing legal case. We respect the rights of all parties involved. Therefore, we will let the courts and the authorities determine the facts.

Madison’s defense attorney, Julie Rendelman, declined to provide Hyperallergic with comment. Anne-Sophie Berger has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s inquiry.

“There’s a tendency to assume that domestic violence cases are private, or that both sides may have taken part in the violence,” said Wolf. “We wanted to make public the claims and let people know.”

“It’s crazy that nothing happened yet, that the Swiss Institute knows about the allegations and is doing nothing,” said Caitlin MacBride, a Brooklyn-based artist and one of the letter’s signatories, in a phone conversation with Hyperallergic. “The more pressure that can be put on, the better.”

“This happens often in the art world; it’s not as rare as people think,” MacBride continued. “We tend to think that it doesn’t happen a lot in our community, but it does.”

Despite the public support, both Wolf and MacBride doubt if the court will reach a just decision. “Justice is not guaranteed,” said Wolf. “The odds are stacked in favor of people with means,” she added, saying that Madison is represented by one of Manhattan’s top attornies. “In many cases, the punishment is not equal to the crime,” she said.

“In our community, it’s terrifying to even press charges,” said MacBride, “It’s terribly isolating for the accuser and it’s easier to just get as far away from it as possible.”

“Even though this really made me lose faith in the Swiss Institute, times are changing in a way that there’s a whole community of people speaking out against this,” MacBride concluded. “We all want this woman, and other people going through this, to know that we are there for them.”

Update 10/10/19 2:03pm: CA Conrad canceled a planned appearance at the Swiss Institute in solidarity with artist Tobias Madison’s alleged victim.

“I grew up with a violent stepfather & I know how this violence reverberates through the years in the lives of victims,” Conrad tweeted today. “There are terrific, dedicated people working at Swiss, but I canceled my upcoming appearance in solidarity with the victim.”

Conrad was slated to participate in a reading at the institute on October 16 as part of artist Michael Wang’s exhibition Extinct in New York. The exhibition was organized in partnership with the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. An event page for the reading was removed from the Swiss Institute’s website following Conrad’s announcement.

In a statement sent to Hyperallergic, the Swiss Institute said that while it “is disappointed in the cancellation of CA Conrad’s reading, we fully respect and honor their decision.”

Update 10/11/19 11:21am: This story has been updated to include a statement from Freedman Fitzpatrick.

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