Last week, on International Women’s Day, Liv Wynter stirred up a storm of controversy when she penned a public letter of resignation to the biggest art institution in the UK — the Tate. Wynter, who was the artist in residence for education, schools and learning, protested her belief that the Tate and other art establishments are failing to foster diversity and to protect women against harassment. In particular, Wynter resigned over comments made by the director of the institution, Maria Balshaw, in an interview with The Times. When responding to allegations of sexual harassment in the art world, Balshaw stated, “But I personally have never suffered any such issues. Then, I wouldn’t. I was raised to be a confident woman who, when I encountered harassment, would say, ‘Please don’t’… or something rather more direct.” This statement came after Anthony d’Offay — one of the most prominent art dealers in the UK, who has donated significantly to the Tate — was accused of sexual harassment. Wynter’s response to these recent controversies was, she says, intended to “throw a spotlight on the inequalities of the institution” and its apparent unwillingness to support marginalised groups.
The artist is no stranger to activism having led relentless campaigns both in the art world and in local communities. She co-ordinates demonstrations for the domestic violence charity Sisters Uncut, including the recent protests against Teresa May’s cuts to domestic abuse services (like the gatecrashing of the 2018 BAFTA red carpet). She has also worked tirelessly to reinstate late artist Ana Mendieta into the art historical canon, leading the archiving project and protest group WHEREISANAMENDIETA, which has become a global structure in the last few years.
Here, in the wake of her impactive resignation, Sleek caught up with Wynter to discuss its aftermath and where we should all go from here.
Penny Rafferty: After releasing one of the fiercest letters of resignation that the Tate may have ever publicly received, how are you shaping up?
Liv Wynter: Yeah, OK! The first two days were actually really incredible and inspiring, lots of my friends rallied around me and made me feel pretty invincible. Then, the reality hit, and now I’m on a desperate job hunt.
PR: You’re no novice to direct action though, after working on campaigns like Sisters Uncut and WHEREISANAMENDIETA. Most people know you as an activist artist, perhaps even a voice of activism within the arts.
LW: Yes, it was definitely a slow-burning decision. I started to feel a kind of unspeakable self-loathing bubble over time and it took me a while to put my finger on it. On the surface level, it runs no deeper than me, as a survivor, not wanting to work for Maria really. But, there are also deeper levels and I have witnessed thousands of inequalities that led up to this moment — these things do not exist in a vacuum.
Really though the decision was made after the meeting with Maria. I had to decide between a thousand pounds a month or walking out, so it needed to be worth doing as that was a lot of income for me and it had to have a lasting effect. There was no point (and no power) in sliding out the back door.
PR: There have been a lot of allegations thrown around over social media. What’s your response to those that have denied your right to speak as a victim and proffer you merely as an attention seeker?
LW: Whatever man, I think this term “attention seeker” deserves to be ripped apart. Attention seeker, or a person who is not paid attention and requires direct action to get someone to pay attention to us? Am I an attention seeker when doing direct action with Sisters Uncut, or only when I’m by myself? Am I an attention seeker when I speak about the abuse I’ve suffered? What about when I ask for help? I think it’s an ignorant term. Also, I think some people think I want to be the face of “The Good Ally”, but realistically I wanted out of working for someone who doesn’t care about survivors, but likes to profit from us. I’ve quit other jobs for less.
Also, I didn’t walk out of Tate and into safety or security — right now I have nothing. I am working at a pub trying to work out what my next steps are. I wasn’t in a safe or privileged space to leave, I just left because I had to.
PR: Let’s talk briefly about Maria Blashaw’s response in The Times, which was perhaps the first time this all went public. It seems like such an outdated response by someone who is “drinking the kool-aid” of misogyny. This is not unusual in the arts or academia though — I have noticed many women deny or ignore abusive people or infrastructures over the years. I always assumed they were trying to safeguard their jobs in this precarious business model, but maybe it runs beyond that?
LW: Yeah I don’t know. I still stand in solidarity with anyone who feels forced into work, such is our lives under labour and under the conditions of capitalism, not to mention the disgustingly high rents we must pay.
I think it’s a misconception that I resigned and I am blaming Maria for everything. I’m not. She is a symptom of a wider sickness: patriarchy, capitalism, racism, etc. I have no hate for women that are still wrestling with internalised misogyny. I, too, am fighting those battles. We all must fight them in order to win. My issue comes from [the question]: what level of political, sexual, gendered and racial awakening do we need for someone to be the director of the UK’s largest arts institution?
PR: Has the Tate or Blashaw reached out to you? As I understand they stated they did not recognise your description of events. If this is true it must “come as another huge slap in the face” to you?
LW: They didn’t reach out — no. I don’t mind, whatever, my inbox is open, you know? And my direct team were incredibly supportive and understanding.
PR: I can’t help seeing the parallels ways in which the Tate are responding to you and the way in which the Whitney responded to Hannah Black’s open letter (to remove Dana Schutz’s painting “Open Casket”). Are the museums ever going to stop fostering the prejudices of the past?
LW: It’s interesting that you bring up Hannah Black’s letter: she is a huge inspiration to me both in her art practice and also in how she discusses inequalities of the institution. I think with Tate a lot of discourse happens because it considers itself both a museum and an art gallery. Both of these things have different sets of rules. In a museum, the showcasing of racialised violence, for example, is tackled with and discussed through the vital lens of decolonisation. This comes with its own standards and fine lines. In the space of a contemporary art gallery, these standards surely must be more immediate. Surely, we as artists must decide that we do not want to continue to platform racisms, sexism etc. History is important, but most of history is a lie, and most of what’s documented is violence and horror spun through the lens of patriarchy and colonialism.
PR: Many people often assume that women can’t be sexist or that a minority cannot learn or mirror prejudices. I hear the answer “but she’s a women” so often as if the body is merely enough. I guess it goes beyond the institution — it’s more about re-educating the experience and knowledge.
LW: I cannot hate a woman who does not experience misogyny or perpetuates it — it is too rooted in our very being. All I can do is hope a woman can identify with another’s struggle, and that, in turn, leads onto education. I had never called myself a feminist until I left an abusive relationship and found something that held me in recovering. We all have an awakening, and we all have them at different times. We cannot rule women, who are victims of patriarchy, out of the conversation, but we can hold them accountable and ask them how they can, after being educated, still refuse the rights of survivors?