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Features / May 11, 2016

We Need to Talk: Sexual Harassment in the Art World

Eleven women—including artists, curators, critics and gallerists—speak about sexual bias, harassment and assault in Canada’s art scene.

Recent allegations of sexual harassment against former Banff Centre leader Jeff Melanson, as well as the trial of former CBC host Jian Ghomeshi, have been accompanied by women in the media and music industries—and beyond—speaking up publicly about sexual bias, harassment and assault in their work milieus.

In some cases, this public discussion seems to involve the articulation of open secrets—it appears that people in these industries have long been aware of sexual bias, assault and harassment in the workplace, but no one felt able to say or do much.

We want to open up the conversation about these issues in the Canadian art realm. Even in internal conversations among our editorial staff, it seemed that every one of us was aware of—or had personally experienced—sexual bias, harassment and assault in art-related workplaces.

To talk about harassment in the wider world is crucial, as is addressing it specifically in the art-world context.

The art milieu, in particular, has specific conditions that can contribute to, encourage or cloak bias, harassment and assault. These factors include:

  • the diffuseness of the art-world workplace, which extends variously (but not only) to galleries, bars, studios, restaurants, residencies, retail environments and public spaces;
  • the fuzziness of the line that exists at many art-world events between socializing and selling, flirting and funding, public and private, profession and pastime;
  • the tradition of signing the female body (among others) as readily available in the art-historical canon, particularly as nude or other easily sexualized form;
  • and the tendency for art systems and schools to valorize (at least in theory) the practice of transgressing boundaries and ignoring social guidelines at all costs.

It’s important for us to acknowledge that, within the art milieu and wider world, acts of sexual harassment and bias intersect with other experiences of oppression, influenced by race, class, gender, ability and more.

For this article, we asked a number of artists, writers, curators and others to share their observations and impressions on this topic, whether it be about issues in art workplaces in general, or more specific anecdotes.

We also warned our contacts that our resources do not provide us with the legal capacity to name names of possible assailants.

Given the risks that can accompany making these kinds of experiences public, particularly on the Internet, we want to express deep appreciation to all those who have agreed to share the following perspectives with our readers.

Can’t You Take a Joke?

Rosie Prata, managing editor, Canadian Art

You won’t get very far in the art world if you can’t take a joke—even Sister Wendy won’t admit to being offended by Andre Serrano’s Piss Christ. If you can look at Jeff Koons’s Made in Heaven with a straight face, how come you get all frigid and prudish when the gallery owner’s friend tells you he wants to take you upstairs and pull on your pigtails until you squeal? Complaining when a client emails graphic photos to the gallery inbox of a woman having her anus tattooed with the words “INSERT HERE” shows that you don’t have a very good sense of humour. Don’t get so easily offended, okay? It’s all in good fun!

The best thing about working in the art world is that, most of time, it doesn’t even feel like a job. You’re just doing what you love! You get to tag along to eat at expensive restaurants as part of the dealer-client courtship ritual (in which you’re squirted out as lube). Be coquettish, receptive, supplicant. Make clients think you’re talking to them because they’re fascinating, not because you’re relying on that commission to pay your rent. Keep the wine flowing and endure slimy come-ons from bloated, wealthy men (while staying smart about your own intake, so that when you’re pressured to drive to the next location in his red sports car with him, you have the wherewithal to push away the clammy palm that flops onto your thigh).

Don’t overreact by storming out of the gallery when your colleague tells you the potential intern he’s just interviewed was “unprofessional” enough to imply, after being prodded for a better explanation than “personal reasons,” that she left her previous place of employment because of sexual harassment. In his assessment—and, need I remind you, he’s been in this game a lot longer than you have, and knows lots of people—it indicates that she’s untrustworthy and totally naive. You don’t even have to ask, because he’ll explain it to you: this industry’s too small to talk shit about people you’ve worked for if you’re trying to get ahead. She doesn’t get it.

On the Difficulty of Speaking Publicly

K.C. Adams, artist

I have a lot of stories I could share, but I hesitate to do that right now.

I feel that we female artists in the Indigenous community have realized that we can only talk about it—sexual harassment, bias and assault—to each other, warn each other, otherwise we will be discriminated against by men, and possibly by non-Indigenous people in general. The reality is, my career is encouraged mostly by women.

My teenage years were in the ’80s, so I expected sexism. It was so second nature that I simply ignored it and plugged on because I knew I was talented and that I had a unique voice.

Now that I am older and more established, I feel like it is important to pave the way for young female artists. That’s why I am taking the risk of speaking up beyond the usual circle of women I talk with about these things. I want things to get better for the younger generation.

The Benefits of “Being Invisible”

Madelyne Beckles, artist

The art world, as with any capitalist system, perpetuates a dominant standard to which people must adhere in order to achieve success. This comes first and foremost as economic gain, but extends to works being reviewed, publicized, canonized and getting recognition and support from institutions. Artists who are considered “marginalized,” such as women, people of colour and queers, are put at risk of their bodies of work being erased because these systems typically privilege certain people and silence others.

Personally, when I began to think about what I wanted to contribute to this article, and began reconciling with sexual bias in the art world, I realized that no hetero-cis-white man—the ones who ultimately hold the keys to breaking into the capital-A “Art world”—has ever approached me about my work in any capacity, so on the one hand I am invisible to a certain sector of this world, but the beauty in this is that there have proven to be spaces within the art world that make it more viable to avoid my oppressors.

I am quite thankful that the opportunities I’ve gotten surrounding my work have been through other queer, racialized or femme bodies; the benefit of this is that my work is then circulated to a community that provides a safe space, offers solidarity and wants to engage in a dialogue. I can escape the structural violence that comes with institutional capital, which in turn allows me to be authentic in my practice, and feel no pressures to censor myself or conform. I would take this over money any day.

A Proposal for Precarious Arts Workers

Amy Lam, artist

I thought about relaying some of my experiences as a racialized woman working in the arts, but decided instead I should write about a project that I conceptualized with Simone Schmidt (musician, Fiver and The Highest Order). We wrote a proposal together last December for the new “Creative Engagement Fund to Stop Sexual Assault and Harassment in Ontario” grant at the Ontario Arts Council. We did this because we’d worked together (along with Kristan Klimczak) on a “community” event about sexual assault in fall 2014.

In the proposed project, we wanted to work with a group of expert facilitators to address sexual assault and harassment experienced by women and non-binary or genderqueer artists and cultural workers in Toronto. It has been obvious for a long time that for most women and non-binary people, there is little to no recourse for any harassment or assault they experience, and this is compounded when you’re a precarious worker in an ostensibly liberal or progressive, small-ish industry. Because the male perpetrators are other artists or cultural workers (often more powerful) they are used to talking themselves, or intimidating others, out of any repercussions. It seems urgent to create more formalized structures of support, so that people who are being harassed or assaulted by their employers and/or colleagues have somewhere to turn beyond, well, the media.

Our proposal basically consisted of the development of a support network or external structure for precarious art workers experiencing sexual harassment and assault, and the development of training materials for male cultural workers through an intersectional (anti-racist, anti-ableist, anti-classist) lens. The project would begin with groups where women and non-binary cultural workers are paid to attend and talk about their experiences and what they need with each other, within a framework designed by a facilitator. Creation of workshops and other training materials would go from there.

The inaugural deadline for this OAC program had a huge response and we didn’t get the grant. It seems useful to write about it here, though, to make it a public idea, one among many. It would be so satisfying to see something happen where women and non-binary people are paid to talk about this with each other, with it then being channelled into a process where men have to think and act on these topics in sustained and accountable ways.

Subject: Sad Face

Jessica Kirsh, co-director, CK2 Gallery

April 28, 2013 11:02am

[Name of employer],

_____no longer work for you______. ____________trust__respect__________broken_______, _____________________ _________uncomfortable____. _______disappointed. _________experience_____________opportunities, _______grateful ______. However, ______________relationship__________light.

Good luck________.

[Name of employee]

April 28, 2013 5:30pm

Hey [name of employee],

______drag, ______. _____________quitting unnecessarily. ________drinking__________boring_____________ spontaneously__________encounter. _______________world-shaking. _________________signals_____(misread) _________________________. _____________easily swatted it away_______Eeeww Gross______I’m Flattered _______No Way You’re Old______________back to the usual_________________.

__________door’s open_________feel lighter.

[Name of employer]

When Sexual Behaviour Is Unwelcome, It’s Abuse, Period

Shary Boyle, artist

Anyone in a position of power or authority can exploit a less powerful person’s ambition, poverty or insecurity. Sex is currency and can be used on both sides of an unequal power dynamic. When sexual behaviour is unwelcome, it’s abuse, period.

Desire, money and power have always been major components of art culture, as have massively unequal power dynamics between patrons, gallerists, curators—and most artists. I experienced sexual pressure in my early 20s with older men in the “art scene”—people I now understand did not have my best interests in mind. At the time I was naive, in thrall of their sophistication, perceived success and authority as role models. I wanted their attention and approval. Young people are specifically vulnerable to this pressure, as are poor people and anyone who needs something that someone else can give them. Sexual harassment and bias also highlight lookism and ageism in our community—those targeted (or, perversely, rewarded) tend to be young and “attractive.” I’d like to add it’s not only a gender-binary problem: young straight and queer men are susceptible to pressure or abuse too; the Western contemporary art world has always tended towards male power: queer and straight.

There’s a lot at stake. People don’t talk about sex exchange or abuse as everyone’s afraid of being blacklisted, losing their opportunities/job, being humiliated in public or branded a prude or a slut. To provide balance to this issue: it’s also important to acknowledge most people I now work with in the art world are highly aware of and sensitive to appropriate and respectful sexual behaviour (regardless of gender/identity), and tend towards activism and self-awareness.

Consent and the Art-Educational Context

Barbara Lounder, artist and professor

I guess what I can offer is a perspective gained over decades in the art system.

My generation went to art schools when the work of women artists wasn’t shown at all. So the art schools were filled with women students, and we didn’t have female instructors or professors for the most part, nor did we see the work of women artists.

There was also a kind of entitlement around sexual behaviour that was a part of the university system, particularly coming out of the ’60s. There was a feeling that it was cool to party with your students, and for older male instructors in particular to party and be opportunistic with younger women students.

It wasn’t until the ’70s and ’80s that sexual harassment policies came into workplaces, including universities. I think all kinds of things were going on that didn’t have a name at that time, and that those things became part of the texture of the experience that many women experienced in art school.

Today, there persist situations where there’s a kind of opportunism on the part of (mostly male) faculty members regarding (mostly female) students.

Now, there is nothing that says that two consenting adults can’t do what they want, and if a young female student says, “I’m entering into a relationship with a professor of my own free will,” then it’s outrageous for me to say, “I don’t think you have that kind of agency.” There is often no policy that you can call upon in that kind of situation.

But it is questionable behaviour at the best of times, and not something that I think is indicative of a healthy environment in the world of the arts or educational institutions. There are just too many scenarios where professors end up in these sorts of serial relationships with one student after another.

With sexual harassment, if someone says, “I was told I had to do this in order to get a grade or recommendation,” well, those cases are pretty clear. But a lot of what goes on is not clear—it’s very murky, and I think there are a lot of conflicted feelings for a lot of people.

Younger students often feel flattered by any kind of personal attention from their professors, period. And if they are being shown a kind of opportunity to get to know someone in a way other students don’t, that can be attractive. I think it’s hard sometimes for students to figure out what is going on.

I think the power dynamics also make it difficult—I mean, you have consenting adults, but you also have unequal positions of authority and responsibility.

I guess it goes back to the systemic things about who feels at home in that environment, and who feels that they can be who they are and not have to worry about repercussions, or worry about what the chances are for their career.

And I think until there is more equity, generally, in the art world, we can’t really say that there is a level playing field. All the recent exhibitions of women artists are wonderful. But they don’t take the place of real change.

The Tyranny of the Reputation Economy


We live in a reputation economy. It is not the kind of economy in which we want to be profiled as either a complainant or as someone who has been accused. So how do we handle situations of workplace conflict or abuse of power?

I think those who abuse others know how much is at stake. We are all precarious labourers, even in institutions—yes, we are hired, but in many ways we are like consultants, relying on our reputation everywhere we go.

Precarity, austerity, a reputation economy—these factors align in today’s workplace, resulting in vulnerable workers. So how do institutions create policies that protect workers’ rights, and mechanisms that allow those workers to voice dissent should there be a need?

Harassment cannot exist without some kind of permission, either implied or explicit, from those who have power and oversight in an organization. The latter point—the provision of mechanisms for reporting abuse and harassment—is really important. There are highly developed harassment policies in most institutions now, but if the policies are not enforced, then staff are still at risk. Likewise, if those in charge pay lip service to a policy—they could listen to a complaint, but decide not to dig deeper, workplace safety remains at issue.

Leadership on this issue occurs at all levels, from boards to human resources to the civic, provincial or federal bodies which also sometimes have stakeholder roles in Canadian art institutions.

Many arts organizations in Canada are structured with a Board of Directors that are comprised of people who are not industry specialists. They lack the context to evaluate art-world work methodologies. Boards tend to depend on a single staff person—usually the leader— for information about staff performance and climate and to mentor them on what constitutes their role in the art-industry context. So if there is an abuse of power, they either may not be able to see what is taking place because they are volunteers in an unfamiliar industry, or ignore or never seem to learn about it because it is their job to be arm’s-length in the interest of non-interference.

Yet a board’s responsibility extends to the whole organization—which means all of the staff, not just the leader. In a healthy organization, arm’s-length devices work well and give directors the authority and freedom they need to do their work, but in an unhealthy one, they can open the door to abuse.

Reputation economies can quickly devolve into a focus on optics, and a focus on abstract ideas like “vision” or “institution-building” divorced from actual interpersonal relationships, the site where these ethical challenges take place. Effective oversight is about tackling issues directly that are difficult and complicated. Saying things like “this person may not be nice, but they get things done” is an abdication of that responsibility. It also demonstrates the moment we are in, romanticizing “tough boss” or “charismatic leader” personas—at the cost of accepting toxic influences, and of accepting very limited ideas of what good leadership can be. Workplace abuse and harassment—of any kind—has devastating consequences for the culture of the whole organization.

On Being a Man

Xenia Benivolski, curator

I’m lucky to have many close male friends and collaborators, but I do end up holding these people up to higher standards, because sometimes even they express doubts about the relevance of the recent conversations regarding gender balances in Toronto. You have to constantly remind people why it’s still a big deal and why it needs to be said every day, even if they’re sick of hearing of it, and that makes you feel like a nag. I’m sick of hearing myself saying it and I still say it. I wish I didn’t have to. I do it because I have to remind people that what they say affects me too. Sometimes it feels like if I said nothing, I could just be like them, with all their liberties, but that’s false.

I think a lot about that Ursula K. Le Guin quote where she talks “on being a man,” saying that that when she was born (1929), there actually were only men—I think, if society was built by “men,” I want a part of that. “That’s who I am,” Le Guin says, “I am the generic he, as in, ‘If anybody needs an abortion he will have to go to another state’ or ‘A writer knows which side his bread is buttered on.’ That’s me, the writer, him. I am a man. Not maybe a first-rate man. I’m perfectly willing to admit that I may be in fact a kind of second-rate or imitation man, a Pretend-a-Him. As a him, I am to a genuine male him as a microwaved fish stick is to a whole grilled Chinook salmon…I am at best a bad man.’”

Art Biases and the “Abject Wound”

Karin Jones, artist

I don’t have any experience, either direct or indirect, with sexual harassment or assault in the art world, but I do have some thoughts on biases.

I was 40 years old when I entered art school for the first time, in an MFA program. I didn’t have an undergrad degree in art, so it was my first time being immersed in an art-school setting. During my first semester there, I was often horrified at some of the language that was used to discuss women’s art and bodies. Despite the fact that some feminist texts were included in the undergrad curriculum, there still seemed to be a lot of focus on what seemed to me outdated sexist theory, specifically Freudian theory and the castration complex. Women’s bodies were often discussed in terms of abjection, and any work that a woman did about her own life and body was termed “feminist.” I still consider the term “feminist” to be a positive thing, but there are so many other things a woman’s art can be about, rather than always being pigeonholed into that one phrase.

All of this gave me a sense, as an intelligent, thinking woman entering her forties, that many aspects of art education were a lot less forward-thinking than I would have expected them to be. How could I have spent over 20 years as an adult out in the world, engaging with ideas and people and society, and not have discovered until I reached art school that I was, in fact, an abject wound?

One of the other aspects of the art world I have often reflected on is the fact that there are so many amazing and intelligent women in influential positions (curators, gallery directors, art school and university presidents), and yet the big-name, successful artists are still mostly male. Furthermore, I have often heard statistics that 70 per cent of art students are female. This seems to me a curious phenomenon. Do women need to promote the work of men in order to be taken seriously? Do they promote the work of men because this is in fact what the public wants? I don’t have any answers for these questions.

On the whole, however, I don’t feel that my career has in any way been hindered by the fact that I am female. In fact, I feel that as a woman, and especially a woman of colour, I have certain freedoms that white men don’t have. I feel that as a woman of colour, I am in a position to make the kind of work that I want to make, which is often much more personal, warmer and perhaps more accessible than what many white men are producing. The expectation is that white men speak universally, which of course is bullshit, but is also a kind of pigeon-holing. They are expected to constantly be referencing Western art history, as well as including big names like Lacan, Deleuze and Foucault in their artist statements, whether they understand those men’s theories or not.

The beauty of speaking in a voice that has been less often heard in society is that people may find it fresh and interesting, just by virtue of its being included in the conversation. Of course, we still have to do a really good job for our work to be seen, but we don’t have to struggle so hard to make work that “hasn’t been done before.” We can focus on what I think are more worthy pursuits, such as finding our true voice, to express ideas that move us, and others, beyond making work that is part of some sort of intellectual in-joke.

A Space Dedicated to Women

Shauna Thompson, curator, Esker Foundation

It says something about the continued culture of public silence around this topic that I’m writing this now with a queasy knot of apprehension in my stomach, but every woman I know has a story of bias or harassment or assault in the workplace or in the larger “art world.” I feel overwhelmed by stories—by my own and by those told to me.

Recently, there have been many soul-crushing column inches dedicated to the various behaviours of men who abuse their power and who are rewarded in spite of, or because of, their actions, as well as to men who publicly avow their feminist solidarity yet privately continue to agree with or shelter others (usually friends or important professional connections) who exhibit inequitable or abusive behaviours. These are important things to expose and talk about, but I want to speak about the fact that our communities and institutions are filled with unbelievably talented and dedicated women who are working and engaging and making it happen in spite of having to deal—directly or indirectly—with bias and harassment on a daily basis.

I dedicate my space here to women.

To the women who support, believe, and listen to other women about their experiences, without scepticism or judgment;

To the women in positions of power and who have heard these stories and have used their influence to do something about it;

To the women who continue to make radical work in spite of institutions, granting bodies, selection committees, or audiences not “getting it” because it doesn’t look or feel familiar and comfortable;

To the women who are spearheading social/political movements and taking them to the streets – at the risk of their own health and safety – in protest of our unjust systems;

To the women who believe that change will come and are fiercely committed to the work it’s going to take to get there;

To the women dedicated to opening up opportunities for dialogue with friends, colleagues, family, or lovers to confront casual misogyny, no matter how difficult and unpleasant those discussions can be;

To the women who take up space;

To the women who make space for other women;

To the women who make mistakes and are constantly striving to hold themselves accountable, learn, and do better in the future;

To the women who defend and warn others about predators in our communities;

To the women who fiercely advocate for and create inclusive support structures and safer spaces;

To the women behind the scenes who get it done, despite the ineptitude or lack of support from senior management, (and who of course get no credit or fair compensation for the work they do);

To the women of previous generations who are supportive and generous mentors;

To the women who are intersectional in thought and action;

To the women of colour who not only do/deal with all of the above, but who also have the courageousness to fight for better, more inclusive systems and institutions, when the stakes of speaking out are even higher;

Thank you.

If you have questions or comments you would like to express privately about this article, or possible future ones on this topic, please contact Leah Sandals, managing editor, online at, or associate editor Caoimhe Morgan-Feir at