The Gray Market: What the Knight Landesman Scandal Tells Us About the Art World (and Other Insights)

This week, our columnist assesses the possible impact of the sexual harassment scandal at 'Artforum' on the art world at large.

Knight Landesman. (Photo by JIMI CELESTE/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images)

Every Monday morning, artnet News brings you The Gray Market. The column decodes important stories from the previous week—and offers unparalleled insight into the inner workings of the art industry in the process. 

This week, a trio of angles on the scoop that consumed the art-industry news cycle: the sexual misconduct allegations against longtime Artforum co-publisher Knight Landesman…

HISTORY IN THE (RE)MAKING: For anyone in the business who has spent the past seven days locked inside a sensory-deprivation chamber, on Tuesday my colleague Rachel Corbett uncovered that Landesman was “ordered by [Artforum] to seek therapy” after “a former employee, who left the magazine in 2012, filed a complaint with the publication last year, followed by a claim for damages this year.”

The next day, curator/art-fair director Amanda Schmitt filed a lawsuit in New York state court asserting that Landesman had subjected her to unwanted sexual advances and harassment for years. The lawsuit also included accounts of similar behavior from eight other women, seven of whom were named. (Schmitt is the sole plaintiff.)

Before the suit was filed, the magazine initially appeared to back Landesman, claiming in a statement that Schmitt’s allegations were “unfounded” and “an attempt to exploit a relationship that she herself worked hard to create and maintain.” The statement also vehemently denied any wrongdoing or enabling on the magazine’s part, arguing that “at no time was Artforum complicit or culpable.”

Then, on Wednesday, Landesman resigned, and his co-publishers released a second statement quite different in attitude toward their disgraced colleague than the first. The new missive explained that subsequent meetings with staff members revealed “that Knight Landesman engaged in unacceptable behavior and caused a hostile work environment.” This review was apparently conducted “in the past days”—a puzzling designation for a reversal that took place in 24 hours, but why parse the fine details in a high-profile legal case, right?

As for the magazine’s institutional culture and future actions, the new statement closed by declaring: “Regretfully, [Landesman’s] behavior undermines the feminist ideals we have long strived to stand for. In response, we are creating a special task force of women at the magazine who will oversee this transformation.”

The statement’s finale raises more than a few questions. If its characterization of the institutional culture is accurate, why did 39 staff members of Artforum and its literary offshoot, Bookforum, release their own statement on Friday to blast the co-publishers’ handling of Landesman and “repudiate the statements that have been issued to represent [employees] so far”?

Similarly, why wouldn’t one of the publication’s most powerful women, editor-in-chief Michelle Kuo, stick around for the rebuild rather than resign her post, as she reportedly did the week before the Landesman debacle went public—in her words, precisely because of “the troubling allegations surrounding one of our publishers”?

Lastly, going back even further, if the magazine has been so dedicated to “feminist ideals” throughout its lifespan, shouldn’t Artforum‘s hierarchy already be abundant in women of influence? Why would it need to conjure up a separate squadron free of X chromosomes to implement more equitable policies? The militant awkwardness of the concept forces me to wonder whether some members of the “special task force of women” might be selected from Mitt Romney’s binders

All of the above suggests to me that Artforum‘s co-publishers may be trying to sell the industry on the type of revisionist history that corporations, politicians, and other public figures often resort to when the flames of scandal ignite underfoot. For another recent example, look at how 21st Century Fox boasted about its “long-held commitment to a diverse, inclusive and creative workplace” in the wake of firing Bill O’Reilly, one of the Fox News stars groomed and protected during the decades-long reign of fellow alleged serial harasser Roger Ailes.

To put it diplomatically, the two parts of the story don’t fit.

In these cases (and many others), it’s completely understandable why management would feel the impulse to try to beautify the past. But in terms of public perception, it also tends to make matters even worse in the present. And thanks to their chosen strategy in the Landesman scandal, the three remaining co-publishers of Artforum seem to be finding that out right now.

The current issue of Artforum. Courtesy of Artforum.

The current issue of Artforum. Courtesy of Artforum.

SURVEY SAYS…: On Wednesday, Carolina Miranda delivered another throat-punch to Artforum‘s chosen narrative by retweeting her April 2015 piece on artist Micol Hebron, who reviewed every issue of the magazine since its 1962 founding to quantify the gender disparity of its 562 cover artists.

Her findings? That works by women led off the publication only 18 percent of the time in the preceding 53 years. Male artists’ works were featured on 74 percent of covers. The remaining 8 percent were gender-anonymous by virtue of showcasing, in Miranda’s example, pieces such as historic African sculpture.

Suffice it to say that if those are the results of “long [striving] for feminist ideals,” the striving might have involved about as much effort as a freshly acquitted OJ Simpson’s campaign to find “the real killers.”

Artforum‘s famous ad pages don’t help the remaining co-publishers’ case, either. Hebron has historically found a ratio of about 70 percent male to 30 percent female there, too.

Damning as all this data may be for Artforum, though, Hebron’s work speaks to a larger, more troubling reality than Landesman alone.

In her piece, Miranda also shed light on Gallery Tally, a crowdsourced project Hebron began in 2013 to investigate the gender (im)balance on the rosters of LA and New York galleries. As of 2016, the numbers still generally skewed to roughly the same split as in the samples above—70 percent male/30 percent female, or little, if any, different than when Miranda reported on the project two years earlier.

As others have noted, the Guerrilla Girls have captured similarly chauvinistic results in their own informal surveys of gender disparity in gallery representation, as well as in both domestic and international museum collections. Add them up, and the numbers paint a vividly one-sided picture of the art industry.

All of which begs a disturbing question proceeding from the accusations against Landesman (which, by the way, have compounded exponentially since Tuesday):

If other sectors of the art industry mirror the same dude-dominant nature on display in the pages of Artforum, isn’t it likely that there are many more predators using their positions of influence in those other sectors to harass and exploit women all too aware of the power imbalance—and, as writer/director/actor Brit Marling wrote about Hollywood this week, the economic consequences of submitting (or not) to these gross propositions?

While Landesman’s requiem appears to be a welcome dose of justice, then, the context also suggests that the problem is much worse than one co-publisher of one prominent industry magazine. Expelling him may only be as useful as catching a lone plague rat while the Black Death rages across Europe.

Don’t get me wrong. Based on his accusers’ accounts, the art world is undoubtedly better off without Landesman kissing necks, palming asses, and emailing juvenile dirty talk. But he is also just the tip of a thick, ugly horn that will need to be sawed off at the root if things are ever going to change in a substantial way. [Los Angeles Times]

Kelley Walker, Untitled, 2006. Marieluise Hessel Collection, Hessel Museum of Art, Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York.

Kelley Walker, Untitled, 2006. Marieluise Hessel Collection, Hessel Museum of Art, Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York.

EXCEPTION OR RULE?: Since we’ve now examined the present and past of the Artforum debacle, let’s end by trying to gaze into the future. On Friday, my colleague Brian Boucher rounded up opinions from a variety of art-industry luminaries about whether Artforum‘s lucrative advertiser base will contract in the wake of the Landesman scandal.

The principals of Blum & Poe went on record to say they will be “reassessing [their] relationship” with the magazine. Lisa Spellman of 303 declared that her gallery would refuse to run ads there until “real, systematic change” was evident. Advisor Todd Levin even proposed that galleries and artists “pull all advertisements and image rights from Artforum for a period of six to 12 months to register their displeasure in a meaningful, concrete way.”

Pace’s Marc Glimcher represented the lone dissenting opinion in the piece. He voiced his belief that “the importance of Artforum as an institution goes beyond the alleged reprehensible actions of an individual,” and would therefore regularly continue to make thousands of dollars in ad buys.

As for me, I think this whole issue will tell us a lot about whether the art world really is any more progressive or principled than much of the rest of the world.

Incidentally, Johnny Depp and Mel Gibson each either settled or pleaded out on domestic-abuse charges by their exes in recent years, and yet right now LA is pockmarked with billboards for major studio movies starring both.

Despite at least 215 documented claims of “workplace incidents” capped by the resignation of Travis Kalanick—who, reminder, had taken to “meditating” in his company’s lactation room—Uber is still by far the largest ride-sharing company in the world. It clocked its 5 billionth ride at the end of June, while remaining the only startup of its kind operating in both the US and abroad.

And as The Guardian noted last year, at least 24 different women accused a certain gas-bagging, gold-coveting American media figure of sexual misconduct over the preceding 30 years…and the electorate responded by naming him leader of the free world.

I’m not going to project how things will turn out for Artforum in this regard. But I will say that if the publication shrivels or dies from revenue loss due to the Landesman debacle and its aftermath, then it will be a glaring exception to the way our culture normally responds to the mistreatment of women—especially considering how many members of the art industry spent the past week suggesting that his proclivities had been an open secret for years. [artnet News]

That’s all for this edition. Til next time, remember: Justice delayed is justice denied.

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