The Kunstverein Hannover in Germany, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC, and the Musée d’art contemporain de Montreal have all suspended their forthcoming exhibitions of Jon Rafman’s work after allegations of sexual misconduct against the Canadian digital media artist surfaced online.
Claims that Rafman exploited his position of power in the Montréal contemporary art scene to engage in “emotional abuse” and “predatory behavior” first appeared as posts on the Instagram account @surviving_the_artworld, along with accusations toward other prominent men in the arts in Québec. The #MeToo movement has gained steam over the last month in the nation’s largest province, with victims of sexual violence and misconduct increasingly turning to social media to share their stories as official channels prove unfruitful.
Artist and cultural worker Anne-Marie Trépanier, one of the first women to come forward about her experiences with Rafman, says she was treated like “a disposable rag doll” during two sexual encounters with the artist, whom she met via Facebook while she was a 21-year-old student at Concordia University in 2014.
“You never once asked me if I was into it, if I wanted it, if everything was alright,” she wrote in a post addressing to Rafman on @surviving_the_artworld. “You don’t protect yourself nor do you protect me. I feel disgusting, soiled, I’m embarrassed, so embarrassed.”
Trépanier’s testimony is echoed by other women on the account who variously recount sexual encounters with the artist, often while intoxicated and some of which they describe as “violent.” Several of the posts refer to unprotected sex and allege that Rafman trivialized their health concerns. All of the accusers describe feeling pressured by Rafman’s standing in the art world.
“We had unprotected sex that I can only describe as hurried, sweaty and uncomfortable. I didn’t fear for my safety and I knew I could have left, but because of the clout around him I wanted his approval,” reads a testimony by Emily Cadotte, who met Rafman on Tinder in 2014, also as an arts student at Concordia.
Rafman maintains that all the interactions described in the posts were consensual.
“The sexual relationships I’ve engaged in were strictly consensual, took place over extended periods, and were actively maintained by both parties through ongoing exchanges and multiple dates,” he told Hyperallergic. “No grievances were ever expressed to me until now, and our communications and encounters were always respectful and mutually affirming. In retrospect, I wish I had been more attentive to the subtleties and dynamics of these relationships so I could have better addressed them at the time; this is a source of profound regret.”
However, some have challenged Rafman’s definition of consent.
Trépanier told Hyperallergic, “I don’t agree with Rafman’s statement. I think these denunciations are opening a necessary discussion on the notion of consent. Consent is something very powerful, when two people mutually agree to transgress certain emotional and physical boundaries together.”
“Multiple factors play into this impossibility to speak and say ‘no’: public notoriety, socio-economic status, age difference and inebriation contribute to significant power imbalances,” she continued. “These were at play in my encounters with Rafman. I didn’t chose to derive our interactions towards sex.”
Three museums have so far suspended exhibitions of Rafman’s work in the wake of the accusations, proving notable for an industry infamous for dismissing and even perpetuating a culture of sexism and sexual abuse.
The Kunstverein Hannover, one of Germany’s most prestigious contemporary art institutions, has postponed its exhibition scheduled for September. In a statement to Hyperallergic, a spokesperson said, “Since the artist is accused of emotional abuse by exploiting his position in the international art scene, we have mutually agreed that after clarification of the allegations we will decide whether the already fully prepared exhibition will be shown at the Kunstverein Hannover.”
Earlier this week, the Hirshhorn Museum also put its upcoming Rafman show on hold, one that would be the artist’s largest solo exhibition to date and would include his well-known ongoing series Nine Eyes of Google Street View (2008-). The work, titled after the nine lenses on a Google Street View car, brings together photographs taken by Google cameras to document the presence of technology in daily life, a cornerstone of Rafman’s practice.
“The Hirshhorn is aware of the allegations and has made the decision not to move forward with the proposed exhibition at this time,” a spokesperson said.
The Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal told Hyperallergic that it will not comment for the time being, but confirmed that Rafman’s exhibition was closed on July 15. According to the New York Times, the City of Montreal postponed the unveiling of a public artwork by Rafman, and his gallery in Montreal, Bradley Ertaskiran, stopped representing the artist last week. (The gallery has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.)
“In terms of actions, I don’t think it depends solely on Rafman, but on the whole system that supports abusers and exploiters in the arts,” Trépanier told Hyperallergic. “This means galleries, private and public collections, museums, artist-run centers; all these structures have the possibility to choose who they bring forward as public figures; who they give this privilege to. What are the works that they think deserve the public’s interest? What practices do they want to support?”
Trépanier believes there needs to be a “deeper internal reflection on institutional politics,” and that organizations should share public statements disclosing how they will listen to survivors and take accountability.
“Simply cancelling, or removing a personality from a space is not enough,” she added. “These public testimonies must be stepping stones to more discussion and concrete actions, not only punitive but also co-construction of mutual aid and solidarity networks.”