Anonymous allegations of sexual harassment surfaced online this week against curator and art advisor Bill Arning, a former director of the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (CAMH). They include accusations of predatory behavior, unsolicited messages and advances, and coercion, first appearing on @cancelartgalleries, an Instagram account that posts unnamed testimonies of abuse in the art world.
Arning joined CAMH in 2009 and stepped down from his role suddenly in October 2018, explaining his departure as a personal decision based on his career trajectory. In a statement released at the time, the museum’s Trustee Chair Jereann Chaney described Arning as “a force” who “brought vibrancy, energy and extraordinary vision to CAMH and in turn to Houston.”
However, the recent testimonies shared on @cancelartgalleries have revealed additional details of Arning’s separation from the museum, particularly after a post published on the account suggested that Arning’s departure was due to inappropriate behavior.
In a comment on the post, CAMH issued a statement acknowledging that the museum had indeed become privy to and investigated allegations against Arning that ultimately resulted in his stepping down. “At that time, no illegal activity was alleged or uncovered. CAMH takes these new allegations very seriously — CAMH will never tolerate and will work diligently to eradicate predatory behavior by staff,” the museum wrote yesterday.
In an interview with Hyperallergic, current CAMH director Hesse McGraw — who joined the museum in January of this year — said the board had begun investigating claims that Arning was soliciting artists in exchange for promises to be included in exhibitions in August 2018. During the course of that investigation, the board learned that Arning had begun a relationship with an individual who had been included in an exhibition organized by the museum’s Teen Council, a weekly program for high school students, and had promised to feature his work in the upcoming Stonewall 50 show at the museum.
The board then determined to separate from Arning, giving him the choice of resigning or being fired, and he chose to voluntarily leave his post. However, in a statement provided to Hyperallergic, the museum said that “there was no indication or allegation that this relationship began when this individual was a minor.”
“To be clear, at no time has anyone provided CAMH’s leadership any information of sexual assault or any other illegal behavior regarding the former director. CAMH takes these matters very seriously, and encourages anyone with any information of illegality to come forward,” the statement reads.
“As evident in the institution’s swift actions nearly two years ago, CAMH is committed to protecting and caring for artists, our staff, and our community — this is our duty as a public museum,” the museum said in its statement.
The museum proceeded to say that it has “reported the new allegations to Houston Police Department” and that “[any] person who was affected or has information regarding allegations may contact HPD at 713-308-0080 and reference investigation # 1226552-20.”
In an email to Hyperallergic, Arning called the anonymous allegations against him “either false or so distorted as to require a great deal of effort to remember the actual stories.”
“The only true story is the one posted at the end of the thread that I had a brief romantic liaison with a very talented young artist,” he said, but disputed some claims made online that the artist was a member of the museum’s Teen Council. Instead, Arning says, he was included in a show curated by the group.
“I did meet him then and asked him to keep me up to date on his work,” Arning added.
“Our friendship developed after he graduated and there is nothing about this Relationship that was coercive or tawdry,” he continued. “I was going to include his work in Stonewall, a large group show a year after our last encounter, and there is nothing wrong with that, at all. Curators do not automatically rule out artists they have history with, nor should they.”
Arning emerged as a prominent figure in the 1980s East Village art scene, serving as chief curator of the alternative art space White Columns from 1985-96. Prior to joining CAMH in 2009, he was a curator at the MIT List Visual Arts Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts for nine years. Arning is also known for his personal collection of roughly 800 works by gay artists and recently announced the opening of Bill Arning Exhibitions, his new gallery in Houston, in October of this year.
“I have tried to live free of shame and I know that makes people uncomfortable,” Arning told Hyperallergic. “I am sorry if I ever made people feel manipulated, coerced or that they had no choice how to respond.”
“That was not my intention but I also never saw myself as powerful in the ways described in those posts,” he continued. “I am sure I never groped or molested anyone. I have received in the last days so many messages from artists I have mentored expressing support and gratitude but they are too afraid to respond publicly for obvious reasons.”
Several testimonies shared on @cancelartgalleries describe feelings of coercion and intimidation brought on by Arning’s power and status in the contemporary art world. Hyperallergic could not independently verify each account, but spoke to seven men who said they were victims of Arning’s behavior, each of whom requested their name be redacted from this article out of fear of professional retaliation.
“I hadn’t heard of him before. Looking at his profile, I thought, he’s a big deal curator, and I got really excited,” recounted one Houston-based artist, who said Arning added him on Facebook out of the blue shortly after joining CAMH. The curator showed interest in his work and asked him out to dinner, followed by an invitation to view his art collection at his house.
“He gave me the tour and of course the last pieces were in the bedroom,” he told Hyperallergic. When Arning made a move on him, he says he initially expressed resistance, but Arning “made it difficult to say no.”
“I hesitate using the word ‘rape,’ but I do consider it assault,” he said. “It was forceful and I felt manipulated into thinking that this was going to be about my artwork while he had other things in mind the whole time. He hasn’t shown any interest in my art or my career. I felt really gross afterward.”
One curator based in New York said he and Arning connected via social media in 2017, and although their communication was friendly at first, Arning began sending him unsolicited shirtless photos through Instagram.
“I’ve never done anything to elicit any sort of sexual advances, and the times he’s advanced I’ve always either changed the subject, avoided it, tried to be playful,” he told Hyperallergic. In 2019, they met in person for the first time after matching on Grindr, a queer dating app that connects users based on their location.
“I happened to be one block away, so I met him,” he said. “We leaned in to hug and air kiss, as we do in the art world from time to time, and he made it very clear through his body language that he was going to kiss me on the lips. I avoided it once and moved my lips, and again he made it clear that I was going to receive his kiss on my mouth. And I did.”
He said Arning’s reputation was well known by his colleagues and friends, some of whom turned a blind eye, reducing his behavior to “something we have to put up with as queer folks in the art world.”
“But that was a moment when it became much more real to me. I didn’t want that kiss,” he said. “I didn’t want him to touch me like that, and I didn’t do anything to suggest that that was alright.”
Another artist, based in New York, told Hyperallergic that Arning first contacted him on the dating app Scruff while he was working at an art fair.
“He said he was there and that he would come by to say hi. I thought it was a little weird that a curator would make initial contact on a sex app — should have been my first red flag but I was new to the [New York] art world, sleeping on the sofa of a friend’s apartment, and had no money and few connections,” he said.
When Arning came to meet him, he says, the curator kissed him on the lips, and in the following months sent him shirtless pictures mixed with messages praising his work. He eventually ignored Arning’s messages after he learned of his departure from CAMH and heard that he had made a sexual advance on a friend during a studio visit.
But Arning is only “the tip of the iceberg in the art world,” he warns.
“There are lots of others like him out there that groom young gay artists to accept this type of behavior,” he said. “There’s a pattern among them. They know we’re just starting, they know a lot of us are poor, so they give you things and promise you exposure, connections, opportunities, and then at the end of it they all try to stick whatever appendages they can inside of you.”
An artist Hyperallergic interviewed said Arning visited their studio under the pretense of purchasing work.
“I knew he was a curator, so I recognized the potential for working together,” they said. “But what was really jarring was his over-sexualization of everything during the visit. He provided details of his sexual life and escapades and behavior without it being part of the conversation.”
“Bill has a curatorial style of queer utopia and folds it into that academic or theoretical language,” said the artist. “There’s an intellectual manipulation that’s happening, where it’s about this radical free love ideology but it really manifests more as sexual harassment.”
One Instagram post alleges that Arning gave a presentation to the Teen Council where he showed “graphic depictions of nudity.” That testimony, and another posted on the account, accuse Arning of “grooming” members of CAMH’s Teen Council — a term used to describe the practice of establishing a personal relationship with a young person in order to exploit or abuse them, and a serious accusation. However, McGraw said CAMH did not uncover such behavior during its investigation.
“A museum director’s role is based in a position of trust. The accusation, whether anonymous or not, that the former director would have violated that trust, is unconscionable and it is something that the museum takes very seriously,” he said.
“We are committed in every way possible to restorative efforts to support any victims, to provide support to them, to facilitate an investigation, and to seek justice. But we also know that the real work is in restoring the trust that made those teens want to be part of CAMH,” McGraw added.
Update 9/17/2020, 3:28pm EST: The Art League Houston (ALH) has asked Arning to remove a Facebook fundraiser he started to benefit the organization. In a statement on its Instagram account, ALH said it will donate any funds received from the campaign to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN).