Gladstone Gallery in Chelsea, New York (Lakshmi Rivera Amin/Hyperallergic)

A former manager at Gladstone Gallery in New York City has filed a lawsuit accusing art dealer Barbara Gladstone and her senior partner, Max Falkenstein, of abuse, retaliation, and toxic workplace practices.

Laura Higgins, who worked at the blue-chip gallery from 2016 to 2021, says she was “yelled at, disparaged,” and once physically assaulted when Gladstone allegedly hurled a staff handbook at her.

The lawsuit, filed on January 31, alleges that Higgins faced retaliation and “fake criticisms” after voicing concerns about wage violations and gender and race discrimination at the organization. It continues to say that Gladstone and Falkenstein’s “willful and wanton” conduct eventually forced Higgins to resign last July.

In a statement to Hyperallergic, a Gladstone Gallery spokesperson said “the evidence will prove that Ms. Higgins’s claims lack merit, which we intend to defend against forcefully.”

In response, Higgins’s attorney, Debra Wabnik, told Hyperallergic that her client’s “efforts to protect other employees at Gladstone Gallery should have been appreciated and applauded, but were instead met with disdain and ultimately led to her losing her job.” 

According to the court filing, the hostilities against Higgins began after she complained that the gallery’s financial director, Stacey Tunis, had allegedly manipulated the gallery’s payroll system to prevent employees from receiving overtime pay, as mandated by law.

“For example, if a non-exempt employee worked more than forty (40) hours in week one and less than 40 hours in week two of the same pay period, Tunis would move the overtime hours from week one to week two to eliminate Defendants’ legal obligation to pay overtime wages for week one,” the legal filing says.

The lawsuit adds that Tunis had instructed workers not to report more than 40 work hours weekly.

Founded in 1980 in Manhattan, Gladstone Gallery has since expanded its footprint, with additional locations in Los Angeles and Brussels and an upcoming extension in Seoul, South Korea. It represents well-known artists, including Kai Althoff, Arthur Jafa, Alex Katz, Amy Sillman, and Anicka Yi.

Higgins’s filing also says she had confronted her supervisors about a gender-biased pay policy that “favored a male subordinate employee over a long-time female superior employee”: A newly hired low-level male registrar was offered a higher salary than that of the chief registrar, a woman who has worked at the gallery for several years. While the chief registrar received an annual salary of $90,000 with no insurance benefits, the new recruit was offered a salary of $100,000 and about $13,210 in health insurance benefits, the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit includes other charges of gender and race discrimination against the gallery, including the alleged harassment of a former LGBTQ worker.

Higgins says that retaliation against her continued after leaving the gallery, costing her a job opportunity at artist George Condo’s studio. She argues that a job offer from the studio was rescinded due to a negative performance review by the gallery.

“Condo and Gladstone are very good friends and colleagues,” the lawsuit says, noting that Gladstone gave Condo his first major New York show and was instrumental in his success. “Upon information and belief, Gladstone contacted Condo and spread false information about Plaintiff as further retaliation for Plaintiff’s protected activities of investigating and elevating complaints of wage violations and discrimination to Falkenstein and Gladstone.”

Condo could not be reached for comment. In a statement to Artnet News, which first reported the story, he said: “We interviewed Laura as well as a number of other candidates for the position, and ultimately decided upon another applicant.”

Higgins is seeking damages in an amount to be determined at trial, in addition to compensation for “severe mental anguish and emotional distress” and attorney’s fees and costs. She also asks the court to publicly declare that the gallery’s leaders “engaged in unlawful employment practices prohibited by state and local laws.”

“[Higgins] paid the price for doing the right thing, and it is still affecting her to this day,” Wabnik told Hyperallergic. “This lawsuit seeks to alleviate just some of the damages she has endured.”

Hakim Bishara is a Senior Editor at Hyperallergic. He is also a co-director at Soloway Gallery, an artist-run space in Brooklyn. Bishara is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital...