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Editor’s note 2/17/2021 2:17pm EST: This online petition has been retracted by Kirby Sommers.
In a statement, the NYAA said: “We are grateful that Kirby Sommers has come forward personally to apologize to the Academy and that she asked Change.org to remove the petition she no longer endorses.”
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A new petition calls on the New York Academy of Art to “immediately remove” Eileen Guggenheim from her post as chair of the school’s board of trustees. The writers drafted the petition in support of Maria Farmer, an academy alumna and one of the alleged victims of the convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. The petition reveals new allegations against Guggenheim, made by her former student.
In an interview with the New York Times last year, Farmer accused Guggenheim, who was dean of the academy at the time of alleged assaults in 1995, of urging her, together with other students, to visit Epstein’s ranch in New Mexico.
Farmer also claimed that Guggenheim cajoled her into selling her painting “The Rape” (inspired by Edgar Degas’s namesake 1868–1869 painting, also known as “Interior”) to Epstein at a major discount. According to artnet, Farmer reluctantly agreed to Guggenheim’s proposition although she had already sold the painting to a German buyer for $12,000. (Guggenheim told the Times that she does not recall such an interaction.) In addition, Farmer said that she complained to Guggenheim about Epstein’s alleged assaults at the time, but was ignored. (Guggenheim told the Times that the details she was aware of at the time did not rise to a level that would require intervention.)
“While her hollow denials to the media have been about the lack of recollection – her protests are in vain,” the petition says of the veteran art personality. “No one believes Guggenheim.”
In an email to Hyperallergic, Guggenheim denied all the allegations made against her in the petition.
“I deny the substance and odious implications these allegations try to raise,” Guggenheim wrote. “For over 30 years as an educator, administrator, and board member of the school, I — like so many of my fellow board members and friends of the school — have always encouraged and supported students, sharing in their joy both when they create artwork and when they choose to sell it. As anyone who knows me and my professional ethic would attest, I am not a person who would ever dream of forcing an artist to sell a work of art; MFA artists, typically adults in their 20s or older, make their own decisions about to whom, when, and at what price to sell an artwork.”
Addressing the academy’s president, David Kratz, and its provost, Peter Drake, the petition levels new allegations against Guggenheim, including commissioning Farmer to make a painting of her daughter for $3,000 (a “fraction of the $20/k Maria getting paid for her work at the time,” according to the petition) as well as employing the former student as an unpaid babysitter to her child and an “unpaid maid” to clean her home and her sister’s apartments, in addition to other errands.
In response to these allegations, Guggenheim told Hyperallergic, “On a personal level, my husband and I have employed a host of students to babysit in our home (never as housekeeper). In each and every case, the people who worked for us in this capacity have been paid.”
Stuart Pivar, a former friend of Epstein and the art collector who co-founded the academy with Andy Warhol in 1979, is listed as one of the signatories to the petition.
In an interview with Mother Jones last year, Pivar said he disavowed Epstein after hearing Farmer’s accusations. He described the disgraced predator, who was found dead in his Manhattan jail cell in August of 2019, as “profoundly sick.”
According to Guggenheim, Pivar left the Academy “on unpleasant terms” in December 1994 and had no connection with the school since then, “except for the filing of various claims unsuccessfully asserted against the institution and its trustees.” (Pivar could not be reached for comment.)
Other signers include the actress Rosanna Arquette, the writer Christina Oxenberg, and Virginia Giuffre, who has filed a defamation lawsuit against Alan Dershowitz, a Harvard law professor and a former close associate of Epstein’s. Giuffre claimed in her lawsuit that Maxwell and Epstein “lent” her to Dershowitz for sex. Dershowitz denied the allegations, calling Giuffre a “liar.”
In a statement to Hyperallergic, the New York Academy of Art claimed that the petition is “filled with false information, innuendo, and lies.”
“The allegations against Eileen Guggenheim are injurious and defamatory, and she vigorously denies them,” the academy’s statement said. “Dr. Guggenheim is an outstanding leader and educator who has spent the last 30 years working for the well-being and success of all of the Academy’s students.”
In an email conversation with Hyperallergic Drake wrote that he is “saddened” by the petition and said, “I only know Eileen Guggenheim, in my 19 years at the Academy, as our most ardent and vital supporter, who has selflessly donated countless hours of her time, as well as funding and other critical resources. The school would not exist as it does today without her dedication and hard work.”
“I can’t speak to the intentions of its writer, but this petition will invariably cause great harm to the school and, by extension, our students,” Drake added. “Recent times have been more than challenging, and I’m proud of how our staff, faculty and students are adapting. Our mission has always been to offer the best intensive technical and theoretical studio art training. I believe we continue to do so with rigor and enthusiasm despite the current crisis.”
In a statement last year, Kratz acknowledged that Epstein, who had been registered as a sex offender in 2008, purchased tickets to one fundraising event for the academy in 2012 and two events in 2014. The school also accepted a donation of $30,000 from the billionaire in 2014. “There was no inappropriate contact or behavior during this time period that we know of,” Kratz asserted in last year’s statement.
The petition also introduces news allegations against billionaire Leslie Wexner, founder of Victoria’s Secret and a major donor to the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, which is named after Mr. Wexner. According to Farmer’s complaint, she was sexually assaulted by Epstein and his associate Ghislaine Maxwell, during their stay together at Wexner’s Ohio estate in the summer of 1996. Back then, Farmer was working for Epstein as an art consultant, according to interviews she gave to the press. The petition alleges that Farmer was also threatened by Wexner’s guards. (Hyperallergic has not yet received a comment from Wexner’s representatives or the Wexner Center for the Arts.)
In addition, the petition reveals that the Farmer is now suffering from brain cancer and that she is “convinced it began that day in Ohio as she fought for her life.” Farmer’s friends and supporters have recently launched a fundraiser to help her in covering her medical treatment bills.
“Maria Farmer has suffered tremendously because of your school’s lack of proper screening and supervision,” the petition accuses the academy’s leaders. “This is not what anyone who represents the New York Academy of Art should subjugate a graduate student to do,” it continues. “It is incomprehensible to any normal person. And, it has to be made crystal clear to you and the public – Ms. Guggenheim has endangered your students and needs to be removed from your Board.”
In response, the academy told Hyperallergic, “We all sympathize with Maria Farmer and all of Epstein’s victims. However, in 1995, when Maria Farmer met Jeffrey Epstein, neither Eileen Guggenheim nor anybody else had any idea he was a heinous criminal.”
“It is also important to note that Maria Farmer was a 25-year-old adult when she graduated, and the assault took place after she had left the school and been working of her own volition for over a year for Jeffrey Epstein.”
In an update to the petition, Sommers responded to the academy’s comment about Farmer’s age at the time of her graduation, writing, “It appears to imply that as an adult your institution deems it okay for her to be sexually assaulted.” She also suggested that the academy refund Farmer the tuition and other school-related costs she paid as a student as “a show of goodwill.”