The Scorched-Earth Gallery trial everyone in the art world is watching

In October 2020, Chelsea’s trusty Gladstone Gallery had just reopened after COVID lockdowns shut down much of New York’s art world six months prior. These would be his first shows since merging with Gavin Brown’s Enterprise to create one of New York’s most vital and diverse artist rosters. An ambitious drawing survey featuring works by dozens of artists took over the large space on 21st Street, while an acclaimed performance by the artist Amy Sillman took over the gallery’s 24th Street space.

It was the same month, according to a lawsuit filed last week in New York State Supreme Court, that the gallery’s founder Barbara Gladstone, Aged 84 at the time, he allegedly ‘viciously threw a big gallery book’ at the head of a former manager named Laura Higgins. This mental image — of an octogenarian cultural figure hurling a gallery manual like a projectile aimed at staff — is just the most outrageous of a litany of allegations included in Higgins’ complaint. In his lawsuit, Higgins claims that Gladstone and his senior partner Max Falkenstein engineered a payment system that denied overtime and that Gladstone made racist comments regarding hiring practices, among other allegations. Higgins says she was forced out of Gladstone in retaliation for speaking out against discriminatory payment practices. She is now working at Chelsea’s Tanya Bonakdar gallery, but not before, she says, losing a job in a famous artist’s studio – a move her lawsuit claims the Gladstone Gallery engineered.

Beyond the specific charges, the lawsuit alleges that a gallery that represents some of the world’s leading artists, including Matthew Barney, Carroll Dunham, Arthur Jafa, and Elizabeth Peyton— fostered a toxic environment where Higgins’ vocal complaints of wage violations and discrimination led to retaliation and caused him “mental anguish” and “emotional distress.” One of Higgins’ most serious accusations involves finding an assistant to hire after all staff members, Gladstone included, had undergone anti-discrimination and diversity training. As stated in the lawsuit:

The Museum was looking to hire someone for an assistant position. Gladstone has repeatedly indicated that she wants to hire someone “black” and a “person of color”. The applicant interviewed a qualified candidate, who was Caucasian. When the applicant informed Gladstone of this applicant’s work history, including that she worked at a gallery in Harlem, New York, Gladstone assumed the applicant was black and replied that she was “happy because now we would have another person of color on the staff”. When the applicant informed Gladstone that the individual was Caucasian, Gladstone stated that the Gallery would not proceed with hiring the individual.

Gladstone did not respond to True Colors’ request for comment. Last week, a spokesperson for the gallery told Artnet, “the evidence will prove that Ms. Higgins’ claims are unsubstantiated, which we intend to vigorously defend against.”

The lawsuit is the first in recent memory to draw such public scrutiny to the workplace drama of a Manhattan gallery, traditionally hothouses of ego and ambition where entry-level employees often give up a lot of pay (and sometimes with dignity) for the opportunity to have a head start in one of the most closed and potentially lucrative areas of the global market. Disputes in the art world are not uncommon among its highest echelons – such as when a collector thinks a deal has gone wrong – such as when the former chairman of Revlon Ron Perelman for follow-up Larry Gagosian and his gallery on allegedly inflated price levels, or when the hedge funder Steve Tananbaum continued… Gagosian’s gallery again, with Jeff Koon, this time for allegedly failing to deliver three Koons sculptures. (Perelman’s lawsuit was thrown out by the New York Supreme Court after a judge ruled the billionaire beauty mogul failed to conclusively demonstrate that Gagosian was willfully manipulating prices. “Gagosian Gallery has a great program.”) It is much rarer to see low-level employees seeking legal redress from high-profile employers.

Last week, as Higgins’ lawsuit was made public, arts publications quickly published shocking blog posts and lumped together the allegations in the lawsuit. But it landed with a thud, at least among the industry levers – the dealers, collectors and artists – I spoke to this week. Most, it seemed, were waiting for it to be over, with some legal minds in the art world expecting a quick settlement. An insider who buys from Gladstone on behalf of clients called it all “sad”.

“I feel bad for Barbara,” said another adviser, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “A lot of people are fed up with this stuff. Abusing employees is wrong, but there are cases these days where employees abuse the system. For context, this adviser relayed an example unrelated to him, in which a former employee sued the adviser for unpaid wages because emails from European galleries six hours in advance arrived in the inbox. of the employee overnight. This, according to the employee, merited overtime pay.

About Margaret L. Portillo

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