London’s Tate Modern agreed to pay a six-figure settlement to three artist-curators who sued the museum back in January, alleging breach of contract, race discrimination, and victimization, according to the Guardian. The museum has denied any allegations of discrimination.
The settlement is the result of Tate’s 2020 refusal to allow artist Amy Sharrocks to collaborate on a commission for the museum with Jade Montserrat, an artist who has exposed sexual harassment from one of the museum’s top donors, art dealer Anthony d’Offay.
The payout illuminates a years-long issue facing Tate surrounding d’Offay’s alleged sexual misconduct. In 2008, the art dealer sold his expansive art collection to Tate and the National Gallery of Scotland at an almost 80% discount (£28 million instead of £125 million). To display their enormous new gifts, the two museums created a popular joint traveling exhibition titled Artist Rooms.
Nine years later, in December 2017, Montserrat posted a screenshot of a selfie that d’Offay had sent her the year before. In the photograph, d’Offay captures himself holding the racist Black caricature “golliwog” doll. Montserrat is a Black woman.
In 2018, three other women came forward with sexual abuse allegations against d’Offay. Public outcry ensued, leading Tate to quickly suspended its ties with d’Offay. (The museum quietly resumed contact with d’Offay in 2019, according to reports.)
In 2020, Tate was once again faced with the consequences of d’Offay’s conduct. The story goes back to September 2018, when the museum asked Sharrocks to be the lead artist for its 2020-2021 edition of Tate Exchange — the fifth in a social justice-focused event program that ran across the museum’s three locations and focused on a different theme each year. The theme that year was to be “Love.” Sharrocks’s project, A Rumour of Waves, was to comprise a series of live art performances and conversations that centered water as a means to discuss social justice and love.
Between September 2019 and January 2020, Sharrocks invited Madeleine Collie and Montserrat to co-curate the project with her. Sharrocks told Hyperallergic that in January 2020, the women submitted a program of their upcoming exhibition — with Montserrat’s name on it — and that Tate management approved the plan. As the COVID-19 pandemic became a reality, the artists submitted adapted plans, which Sharrocks and Collie said also listed Montserrat as co-curator.
In June, Tate secured the show’s budget, but Sharrocks said that a month later she received a phone call from a Tate representative asking her not to work with Montserrat.
Sharrocks said the phone call came on July 29, three days after the Guardian published an article that marked a clear, and overtly public, recognition of the relationship between d’Offay, Montserrat, and Tate. Montserrat’s 2017 screenshot was resurfaced in response to the museum’s Black Lives Matter messaging in 2020.
In subsequent conversations, Sharrocks and Collie said that Tate management repeatedly stated that Montserrat was “hostile,” and therefore unfit, and “unsafe” to work with given that she had sent hostile emails to Tate staff. Sharrocks said that management did not deny Montserrat’s abuse at the hands of d’Offay, but stated that allowing Montserrat to be part of the project could spell a legal issue for the museum and that ultimately, “their hands were tied.” According to Sharrocks, later conversations involved amending Montserrat’s involvement to eliminate active participation during the exhibition (for example, requiring transcripts for Montserrat’s conversations at live events).
On September 4, 2020, the museum severed all ties with D’Offay, a move that involved Tate returning his works on loan and removing his name from museum signs. However, the museum did not back down from its refusal to allow Montserrat’s free participation in the exhibition. Sharrocks said that Tate refused her request for mediation and ultimately canceled “Love” in an email sent on September 7, two weeks before the show was set to open. Sharrocks announced the cancellation in a September 10 Tweet, writing “Tate has censored the participation of Jade Montserrat in this year-long programme. We strongly protest this act of institutional erasure.”
The entire Tate Exchange program was also ended.
Other artists have spoken out about the incident. A September 2020 open letter from the artist network Industria condemned Tate’s censorship of Montserrat while making a list of demands that included a public apology to Montserrat and the disbanding of the “Artist Rooms” that display d’Offay’s collection. More than 1,000 people signed the letter. Last spring, after Tate nominated Black Obsidian Sound System for the prestigious Turner Prize, the collective criticized Tate’s censorship of Montserrat.
On August 9, Tate released a statement saying that Sharrocks’s project was outside the guidelines of her contract because she had proposed that other contributors also be lead artists. (Collie and Sharrocks insist that Sharrocks was listed as the only lead artist.)
“It was made clear to Ms. Sharrocks that the arrangements she proposed were not achievable and after long consultation the project was ultimately cancelled,” a Tate spokesperson told Hyperallergic in an email.
“Whilst this was a carefully considered decision, we regret the way in which the relationship ended and have apologised for the distress caused,” the spokesperson continued. “Tate was never served any legal claim in relation to this matter and we refute any allegation of discrimination. We were pleased to have agreed on a settlement before costs mounted for all concerned.”
Sharrocks and her lawyer view the settlement more broadly. “This discrimination claim was an important stand against those controlling the purse strings of our national galleries, who not only decide where to spend funds but also what conversations take place,” said lawyer Georgina Calvert-Lee.
“Tate’s job is to support artists, not donors,” Sharrocks said. “Tate forgot this when they insisted on excluding Jade from a programme she had helped to create.”