Culture

‘They moved to silence and erase’: artists who sued Tate speak out

Three artists who sued the Tate for victimisation, alleging breach of contract and race discrimination, have told of their experiences after it agreed to pay them a six-figure settlement.

The action was taken after the institution told one of the women, who had been commissioned to lead a major year-long programme, that she could not work with Jade Montserrat, an artist who has made allegations of sexual abuse and inappropriate behaviour against the art dealer Anthony d’Offay.

D’Offay, who denies all accusations against him, was one of the most powerful figures in the contemporary British art world and a major donor to the Tate, which suspended contact with him in 2018 amid allegations of sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour from three women.

A claim alleging discrimination, victimisation and harassment under the Equality Act was issued this year against Tate by Amy Sharrocks, who was to be the lead artist during the 2020-21 season of the celebrated Tate Exchange programme. She was working with Montserrat and Madeleine Collie, a co-curator.

While Tate has not admitted liability, it offered a settlement after the claim was lodged in the central London county court in January. The institution also asked that Sharrocks withdraw a freedom of information request.

Sharrocks told the Guardian how she had been excited to be asked to make a large work across three Tate sites on the theme of love for Tate Modern’s 20th anniversary.

She brought Montserrat on board months earlier to work with her on a water-themed work called A Rumour of Waves, but was shocked when a senior executive contacted her in July 2020 to tell her the artist could not be involved.

Sharrocks said that in conversations with senior Tate figures, Tate’s director, Maria Balshaw, described Montserrat as “hostile” to the institution, citing social media posts in which the artist called for her resignation. Balshaw is said to have claimed that, such was the vitriol generated by Montserrat’s social media posts that it would not be “safe” for her or others to be involved in a collaboration at the Tate, and that she would be sacked as director by the board of trustees.

“Tate’s job is to support artists, not donors,” said Sharrocks. “Tate forgot this when they insisted on excluding Jade from a programme she had helped to develop.

“They told me shifting stories about why Jade could not be allowed to take part in a live public programme at Tate – they said they would be sued, they would lose their jobs, that it was a legal problem, a safeguarding issue, that their hands were tied.”

She added: “Publicly, Tate claim to be focused on transformation and learning, risk, trust etc, but in practice they moved swiftly to silence, exclude and erase.”

Tate rejected a request by Sharrocks and her co-curators for mediation, and cancelled A Rumour of Waves. The broader Tate Exchange programme, which ran at Tate Modern and Tate Liverpool for five years, was subsequently brought to an end in acrimonious circumstances.

While Tate has cited funding cuts, others regard its closure as a step backward, depriving it of a space which allows community groups to shape the Tate’s programme and undoing the Tate’s commitment to social justice.

Montserrat accused Tate of being self-serving and relegating audiences and artists.

“From my experience of being in proximity to Tate and its mechanisations my mental and physical health suffered as a consequence,” she added.

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Collie said the closure of Tate Exchange showed that the Tate was not able to nurture complex discussions while prioritising the safety and wellbeing of artists and contributors.

“We sincerely hope that this settlement is a small step that paves the way for serious reflection on the part of the management and board, and that it might lead to some significant changes to their processes of care and support for arts workers they engage and the wider communities they serve,” she said.

Georgina Calvert-Lee, a lawyer who acted for the three women, said: “If we want to live in an inclusive and diverse society, it’s important that our national art galleries reflect those values by being open to all artists and curators, regardless of sex, race and any other protected characteristic.”

“The case sought to establish the principle that galleries must not discriminate against the artists and outside curators who put on their shows, any more than against members of the public who go to see them,” added Calvert-Lee, formerly of the firm McAllister Olivarius.

A Tate spokesperson said: Tate invited Amy Sharrocks to be the lead artist for a public engagement project scheduled for 2020. She proposed the involvement of several other people, asking that they also be made lead artists, which was not consistent with the terms of her contract.

“It was made clear to Ms Sharrocks that the arrangements she proposed were not achievable and after long consultation the project was ultimately cancelled. Whilst this was a carefully considered decision, Tate regrets the way in which the relationship ended. Alongside agreeing a settlement with those affected, we have apologised for the distress caused.”

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