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Features / August 30, 2018

#MeToo at the Museum

With Raghubir Singh at the ROM and Marie Henein at the Gardiner, museums still have a long way to go in understanding and addressing sexual assault in the arts
A view of the entrance to “#MeToo & the Arts” at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. Photo: Wanda Dobrowlanski. A view of the entrance to “#MeToo & the Arts” at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. Photo: Wanda Dobrowlanski.
A view of the entrance to “#MeToo & the Arts” at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. Photo: Wanda Dobrowlanski. A view of the entrance to “#MeToo & the Arts” at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. Photo: Wanda Dobrowlanski.

“It has been a very frustrating dialogue with them,” artist, curator and rape survivor Jaishri Abichandani tells me over the phone in late July. She’s discussing her experience with the Royal Ontario Museum. “I’ve seen them wanting to acknowledge my story while making me invisible.”

Here is Abichandani’s story as written in her diary, decades ago, and shared with close friends around the same time: in the mid-1990s, at the age of 25, she met photographer Raghubir Singh, who was then in his 50s. She went on a trip with him, agreeing to be his photo assistant. He harassed, assaulted and raped her.

In 1999, Singh died. In October 2017, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York debuted “Modernism on the Ganges: Raghubir Singh Photographs,” a show that has since toured to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. A few days after the opening at the Met, Abichandani, who is based in Brooklyn, went public on a New York–area radio show. Then, in December 2017, she and a group of supporters brought that message to the sidewalks outside the Met Breuer. She held a red and black sign that read “I survived Raghubir Singh…#MeToo” and many others joined her with signs that read “Me Too.”

“When I came out with this story, I was contacted by dozens of other women who were coming out with their own stories” of being sexually assaulted, says Abichandani. And, as artists, “none of us have any recourse…we do not have an HR department…we don’t even have a place to approach such things.”

Abichandani began talking with curators at the Royal Ontario Museum after that protest, and she was hopeful for a positive outcome. After all, no other museums hosting “Modernism on the Ganges: Raghubir Singh Photographs” had asked to discuss her experience with Singh, and none had created a parallel #MeToo program and exhibition as a result. Abichandani wanted the ROM’s exhibition, “#MeToo & the Arts,” to include one of the letterpress signs from the December protest, as well as a small sculpture she created, which shows a man lying naked under splayed sheets, a camera at his side. She also wanted to include a New York protest photo she’d selected and, recognizing that many other people working in the arts have experienced abuse, rape and sexual assault, Abichandani suggested that at least some of the space booked for the Singh exhibition be given over to works by women and survivor artists.

But the ROM’s answer to exhibiting the objects that Abichandani felt spoke most strongly to her own survivor experience was no. The ROM also rejected Abichandani’s suggestion of a survivor exhibition and downplayed connections between the two exhibitions. In “#MeToo & the Arts,” one of the mentions of Singh’s show at the ROM is literally in finer print, while in the Raghubir Singh exhibition, there is zero mention of the #MeToo program, let alone Abichandani’s allegations. What links the two exhibitions is minimal: a medium-size, purple sign outside the two entrances to the Singh exhibition simply states, “#MeToo & The Arts: Ground Floor.”

What’s more, the ROM’s “#MeToo & the Arts” public program involves a series of events, including a panel called Is the Future Female? and another on feminism, misogyny and sexual violence in the arts. Yet Jaishri Abichandani—whose rape and disclosure prompted the ROM to initiate its #MeToo program overall—was not invited to be take part in any of their events.

“I’m left in a kind of strange, vulnerable, dissatisfied, dissociated place with the exhibition,” says Abichandani over the phone. “I feel like they have managed to erase me while acknowledging the story in the most favourable way possible.”

As an arts journalist, I too am left surprised and disappointed at the extent to which the ROM—a widely respected institution which just had its highest-attendance year ever—has handled this situation. I’m upset about the way it has distanced Abichandani from the very exhibition her own experience prompted. It’s clear both from this and other instances that museums have a lot to learn about dealing with sexual assault and its survivors. Until that learning happens—on the part of museum management, administrators and CEOs, curators, writers and educators—many survivors are being put at risk of further harm in the process.

“Under patriarchy we get any response and we are supposed to be grateful for it, when we all know the situation demands a lot more than that,” Abichandani says. “I’m a survivor, and minimizing my experience just makes me feel invisible again.”

Jaishri Abichandani wanted the Royal Ontario Museum to include this sculpture in its exhibition on “#MeToo & the Arts.” The ROM said no. Jaishri Abichandani wanted the Royal Ontario Museum to include this sculpture in its exhibition on “#MeToo & the Arts.” The ROM said no.
Another view of the same small sculpture. Another view of the same small sculpture.

When I meet with ROM CEO Josh Basseches and Deepali Dewan, curator of South Asian arts and culture, in late July, it’s clear to me that both of them—and especially Dewan—have invested time and effort in the “#MeToo and the Arts” exhibition and program. They have had to grapple with making a show in a timeline that, for many museums, is breakneck: less than six months start to finish. And they have had the strictures of physical space and institutional contracts—as well as limited training in sexual assault issues—to negotiate.

“There is no place to put [Singh] on the ground floor, and there is no place to put [#MeToo] up here,” Basseches says in response to a question on the distance between the exhibitions within the museum. “‘Modernism on the Ganges’ was scheduled long before we even knew about the allegations.”

When I email Dewan later, she addresses why Abichandani and #MeToo are not acknowledged within the Raghubir Singh show itself: “While ‘Modernism on the Ganges’ is being hosted by the ROM, the exhibition was organized by another museum and as such the content within the exhibition cannot be changed.”

As to the lack of invitation for Abichandani to participate in the ROM’s talks and panels, Dewan writes: “Our approach to the ‘#MeToo & the Arts’ display and programming was informed by many voices and stakeholders, including conversations with Jaishri Abichandani. It was decided that the best approach was to include Jaishri’s voice in the ‘#MeToo & the Arts’ display, describing her experience in her own words, as she wanted.” (In this latter point, Dewan refers to the reproduction in the exhibition of a specific Huffington Post article about Abichandani’s December 2017 Met Museum protest, and use of quotations from that article in wall texts.)

“Another point that influenced our thinking about the programming was that we wanted to focus on Canadian voices,” Dewan writes. “As Canada’s global museum with deep international connections, we feel that we have an important role to play creating space for civic conversations on important topics facing our society, such as the issues raised by #MeToo.”

But couldn’t a civic conversation on #MeToo in arts and culture also include the person whose allegations prompted the ROM’s own conversation in the first place? Why does a timeline in the exhibition only reproduce media clippings starting from around the time of the Weinstein scandal, rather than talking about the long-standing, decades- and centuries-old reality of sexual harassment and assault in artistic professions? And if museum staff feel they are doing more listening than ever before on matters of sexual assault, why do the survivors in question still feel unheard?

Though ROM press releases state that Though ROM press releases state that "#MeToo & the Arts" was prompted by "Modernism on the Ganges: Raghubir Singh Photographs," that link is not as strongly drawn in the spaces of the museum itself. Outside the Singh exhibition, a sign for the linked exhibition is simply placed nearby. Photo: Leah Sandals.
One of the main storytelling devices in the Royal Ontario Museum’s “#MeToo and the Arts” exhibition is a media clipping timeline. But while the timeline includes controversy related to the “Modernism on the Ganges” exhibition in New York, it does not include clippings on similar coverage for the show's arrival in Toronto. One of the main storytelling devices in the Royal Ontario Museum’s “#MeToo and the Arts” exhibition is a media clipping timeline. But while the timeline includes controversy related to the “Modernism on the Ganges” exhibition in New York, it does not include clippings on similar coverage for the show's arrival in Toronto.

One of the steps curator Dewan did take was to form an advisory council, which included representatives from the Toronto arts community and from local survivor-based organizations. This council had input into the ROM’s “#MeToo & the Arts” programming strategy, and members also appear in an 8-minute video, speaking their views on sexual harassment in the arts in general within the exhibition.

“I have been on many advisory councils that have been rubber stamps. This has been one of the few advisory councils that actually took advice from the council,” council member Indu Vashist tells me. As director of SAVAC (South Asian Visual Arts Centre) in Toronto, Vashist oversees an organization that recently did its own project related to calling out misogyny, and may do more in future.

Though Boston’s ICA and Washington’s National Gallery of Art have recently cancelled (or “indefinitely postponed”) shows of living artists Nicholas Nixon, Chuck Close and Thomas Roma after accusations of sexual assault, Vashist says she thinks the ROM made the right call in not cancelling Raghubir Singh’s show. She also says it’s important that a #MeToo show at the ROM not focus on Singh exclusively, as if he is a lone abuser in the arts sphere.

“I think for me the question is not ‘to cancel or not to cancel,’” says Vashist, “but rather how do you make an impact given what is happening in the wider world? How do we change the culture around these things rather than like condemning a single artist? Because it’s not a single artist—it’s the entire system that’s corrupt.”

There are, indeed, many problems with a museum acting as if rape and assault in the art world is a one-person problem, and calling out only one artist on it—especially when that artist is a racialized artist and the institution, like many museums, is a deeply colonial one.

“We sometimes protect abusers, because we know racist caricatures about our people are furthered through the erroneous belief that ‘domestic’ violence—assault of intimate partners—is a thing that only black men, or the ‘native’ do,” scholar and critic M Neelika Jayawardane wrote recently in Al Jazeera. Yet, she points out, “Statistics show that gender-based violence happens across class, professional, and racial groups.”

In some experts’ views, it’s still important that museums and art galleries do start to call out individual and systemic abuses, because institutions reflect prevailing norms and belief systems. “The #MeToo movement has forced many abusive, exploitative workplaces to come to a reckoning,” Jayawardane writes. “That reckoning would have never happened if we continued to support a culture of silencing and the myth that violent ‘complicated’ men produce brilliant work and that if abusers were no longer accepted we would have empty spaces or mediocre work on our walls.”

“It’s a complex dance in the art world, to have a larger conversations about this,” says Jaishri Abichandani. “I’m not the only freelance artist who has faced this and right now we have zero systematic ways to approach this problem.”

But are the visual arts, and museums in particular, really ready for a #MeToo reckoning? In Canada, a Creative Industries Code of Conduct released in March 2018 was signed by more than a dozen Canadian theatre unions, broadcast associations and film groups—but had no visual arts or museum signatories. In the US, the American Alliance of Museums released a code of conduct this year for its conference attendees, but none for beyond the conference. The Association of Art Museum Directors has done reports on gender gaps in museum directorships since 2014, but none yet on assault, harassment and abuse.

Even #NotSurprised, a movement launched in October 2017 to call out abuse specifically in the international art world, has gone relatively quiet. The Walker Art Center and San Francisco Legion of Honor have run programs on #MeToo and museums in recent months, while Boston ICA and Washington’s National Gallery have cancelled or postponed shows of living artists accused of abuse—but these are one-offs rather than an industry-wide effort or a set of policies endorsed and upheld by industry associations.

“The art world is laden with misogyny,” Indu Vashist of SAVAC observes. “It has a misogynistic framework in which certain artists get to produce work, become famous, and have their work circulated on the backs of artists who don’t. The working conditions of these kinds of institutions and the informal working conditions of artists make it ripe for abuses of power to take place.”

Likewise, “zero tolerance” funding policies in the visual arts—now a condition of Canada Council and Canadian Heritage funding—assume that the risks and costs of harassment are being internalized at museums and galleries. But these systems have long operated on externalizing almost all risks and costs of art production—including studio rental costs, insurance costs, health-care costs, and yes, the risks and costs of sexual assault and harassment allegations.

“I would like to see more talk among curators about how we can create safer working environments for artists,” Vashist says. “Especially in terms of mentorship. And I think one step further is to also see the art schools take this conversation more seriously.”

Exterior view of the Gardiner Museum. Photo: Antonio Tan. Exterior view of the Gardiner Museum. Photo: Antonio Tan.
At the beginning of each session of <em>Panic in the Labyrinth</em> at the Gardiner Museum this summer, artist Annie Wong directed the performers to make a public dedication to Lucy DeCoutere, Linda Christina Redgrave and S.D., the women who survived the Jian Ghomeshi trial. Wong disagrees with the Gardiner's decision to book Ghomeshi's lawyer, Marie Henein, for a fundraising talk in September. Photo: Facebook. At the beginning of each session of Panic in the Labyrinth at the Gardiner Museum this summer, artist Annie Wong directed the performers to make a public dedication to Lucy DeCoutere, Linda Christina Redgrave and S.D., the women who survived the Jian Ghomeshi trial. Wong disagrees with the Gardiner's decision to book Ghomeshi's lawyer, Marie Henein, for a fundraising talk in September. Photo: Facebook.

It’s not just in exhibiting artists and artworks that museums can mess up on #MeToo. The Gardiner Museum recently mishandled addressing #MeToo issues by advertising a September 5 fundraising talk by Jian Ghomeshi lawyer Marie Henein with the title “#MeToo, TimesUp…What’s Next.” This sent deeply mixed messages about the museum’s valuing of sexual assault survivors and their stories.

Art therapist Suzanne Thomson, who facilitates an expressive arts therapy group for survivors of sexual assault, which has taken place at the Gardiner Museum for more than a decade, was surprised to hear about Henein’s talk and its proposed title. One of the therapy group’s Gardiner shows in 2016 was titled “#WeBelieveSurvivors”—after a hashtag that gained momentum following the not-guilty Jian Ghomeshi verdict and the criticism and aggression survivors experienced on the stand from Henein.

Henein was awarded a Law Society Medal for outstanding legal skills in 2017 and has given other sold-out talks in Toronto this year, including a February talk at the University of Toronto that the Canadian Press, Globe and Mail, and Chatelaine said linked #MeToo to a “necessary social awakening.”

But when I spoke with Thomson she questioned why Henein had to be the sole speaker slated to address #MeToo: “Wouldn’t it be great to have something integrated within that Henein talk in response to her talk? And then have her give a response back?” Thomson wonders. “How is this, like, an ongoing conversation?” she queries. “And how are we all a part of it?” Given the Gardiner’s past support of survivors through the therapy group, Thomson also asks, “What’s the dialogue you are wanting to invite knowing you have this long history?”

Artists exhibiting at the Gardiner Museum have also voiced concern about the Henein talk. This summer, the museum hosted Panic in the Labyrinth, a performance project conceptualized by artist Annie Wong and co-presented with Angry Asian Feminist Gang and Margin of Eras Gallery. In a gesture countering the Henein lecture, Wong writes in an email that “prior to each performance, we made a public dedication to Lucy DeCoutere, Linda Christina Redgrave, and S.D., the women who survived the Jian Ghomeshi trial.”

In late July, in response to stakeholder feedback, the Gardiner changed its web description of Henein’s talk to “a presentation that will touch on the necessity of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements.” Rachel Weiner, senior manager, marketing, at the Gardiner Museum, says in an email: “The Gardiner received feedback asking for a clearer understanding of the context of Ms. Henein’s talk as well as the sensitive nature of the Jian Ghomeshi case and its triggering effect on survivors of sexual violence and others,” which prompted “changes to the language of the text in order to clarify the purpose of the presentation and to ensure that it would not be triggering to readers.”

But even if the promotional copy for Henein’s lecture has changed, artist Annie Wong says the situation still negatively affected her experience as an artist—particularly presenting group performances on feminist history and practice. “Continuing to work with the Gardiner was incredibly stressful,” Wong states. “The choral performances [were] very charged and confront a history of misogyny and gender-based violence. To present this work in the same institutional space that invited Henien to speak felt insulting and hurtful yet even more urgent and necessary.”

Angela Sun, a performer and poet involved with Panic in the Labyrinth, also remains critical of the Gardiner: “I was very disappointed to learn of [the Gardiner’s] decision to host this event…. Ms. Henein has been capitalizing off her defense of Jian Ghomeshi for some time now and it is disappointing to see the Gardiner Museum be complicit in this,” Sun writes via email. “While I understand that Ms. Henein has had a varied legal career and is a self-proclaimed feminist, there are still many, many survivors who have expressed dismay at her words and actions during and after the Ghomeshi trial.”

Sun says that the Gardiner changing the wording of the Henein event to make it less authoritatively about #MeToo was not enough: “No matter how they brand this event—for the artists and community members I have talked to, it is the very existence of this event that is hurtful and traumatic. It is frustrating for all of us to see that once again we are privileging reputation and business over the well-being of survivors.”

An installation view of An installation view of "20 Minutes of Action" at Centre[3] in Hamilton. Photo: Andrew Butkevicius.
During its trial run in July 2016, Sexual Assault: The Roadshow, a travelling gallery, was installed in Toronto’s Scadding Court Community Centre. The words on the container read During its trial run in July 2016, Sexual Assault: The Roadshow, a travelling gallery, was installed in Toronto’s Scadding Court Community Centre. The words on the container read "Sexual Assault The Roadshow" and "It's Never OK." Photo: Leah Sandals

Those in the museum and large-gallery sector could learn a lot from the smaller centres and organizations that have been pushing the envelope on conversations about sexual violence in the cultural sector, at least in Ontario.

In October 2015, the provincial government launched a Creative Engagement Fund to Stop Sexual Violence and Harassment in Ontario. It was specifically designed to provide funding to arts groups to deliver art projects dealing with issues of sexual violence and harassment, and share them with communities. This fund, in its first year, was overwhelmed with hundreds of applications—total requests were for $6 million, when the fund could only provide $650,000, or 10 per cent of requests.

But few museums or large public galleries applied to this important fund. It was “mostly artist-run centres and smaller, grassroots and intermediate companies who applied” to fund projects about stopping sexual violence and assault, says Loree Lawrence, an officer of the Ontario Arts Council. “Lots of performance stuff, lots from the performance world—very little from art museums.”

A key finding of the centres that did get funding is that projects dealing with sexual assault and survivors need to be flexible and open to negotiation, as well as to ceding control. In fall 2016, “Sexual Assault: The Roadshow” turned a shipping container into a roving art space. In fall 2017, Centre[3] in Hamilton hosted the exhibition and event “Unmasking Rape Culture.” And in spring 2018, the largest institution involved in the fund, the Thunder Bay Art Gallery, was a venue for the Northwestern Ontario Women’s Centre’s “Honouring Our Stories” exhibition.

“Letting go of some of the established ways of doing things at art galleries” was key for “Honouring Our Stories” to proceed, says Thunder Bay Art Gallery director Sharon Godwin. “It made us, as a gallery, work in a different way and approach things in a way we are not used to doing, which is very good.”

For example, the wall text for “Honouring Our Sisters” at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery was authored by survivors themselves: “The text for this show was put together by the artistic director [of the project] with the women,” says Godwin. “Then we looked at it and we gave feedback.” She says give-and-take with the survivors was crucial.

Gwen O’Reilly, director of the Northwest Ontario Women’s Centre, says lots of time and negotiation—including a project director with a unique combination of both art and social-work expertise—was needed to make “Honouring Our Stories” work for her participants.

On the one hand, O’Reilly says, current gallery systems present challenges to some survivors. “Gallery time is precious—we were fortunate to get the dates we did. But even so, the exhibition was shortened because other work took priority,” O’Reilly says in an email. “We had to book 18 months in advance. The gallery staff and volunteers were a little bit intimidated by the raw nature of some of the stories—we had to develop various warnings for public viewing and provide staff with instructions, brochures and referral info in case viewers were triggered.”

On the other hand, working with an art institution had some advantages for a survivor-based organization: “This partnership with a public venue I think was also a plus for our other partners, Thunder Bay Police…. I suspect it was easier to take a risk to do this work with other institutional players in the ring. For the women participants, working towards a public showing in a formal gallery was a big deal, and pretty exciting, despite the challenges.”

O’Reilly reiterates that a key to making exhibitions about sexual assault, and working with survivors, is that institutions must be willing to give up control. “Let them tell the stories they want to tell, in the way they want to tell them,” O’Reilly offers, as advice to museums and galleries. “Respect survivors. Accept things might change…. Let them tell the stories they want to tell, in the way they want to tell them.”

So, can museums—institutions long accustomed to controlling everything from the exact paint hue on a wall to the precise copy handed to visitors to even the humidity and lighting levels in a given room—really give up control in the ways that are needed in order to deal justly with the very real and extensive phenomenon of sexual assault in the cultural sphere? This remains a crucial question, especially when working with survivors whose own trauma is rooted in having been controlled by abusers.

“It’s a complex dance in the art world, to have a larger conversations about this,” says Jaishri Abichandani. “I’m not the only freelance artist who has faced this and right now we have zero systematic ways to approach this problem.”

This article was corrected on August 31, 2018. The original copy erroneously referred to Angela Sun as a member of the Angry Asian Feminist Collective. In fact, she is a Panic in the Labyrinth performer and poet. And the correct name of the latter group is Angry Asian Feminist Gang. We regret the error.

Leah Sandals

Leah Sandals is news and special sections editor at Canadian Art. A graduate of NSCAD University and McGill University, she has also written for the Toronto Star, National Post and Globe and Mail. She welcomes tips, corrections and comments any time at leah@canadianart.ca.