Sunday, May 25, 2008

Vancouver Art Gallery Presents Lifetime Achievement Award to Jeff Wall, Alleged Operator of SFU Sexual Harassment Ring

The Vancouver Art Gallery knew of allegations that he had operated a sexual harassment ring at SFU. Condo developer Michael Audain knew of allegations that he had operated a sexual harassment ring at SFU. But that didn't stop them from awarding artist Jeff Wall the Audain prize for Lifetime Achievement at the Vancouver Art Gallery on Thursday.

Did Wall's lifetime achievements include operating a sexual harassment ring when he was head of the Visual Arts Department at Simon Fraser University? At least one serious complaint is outstanding at SFU about a sexual harassment ring which operated in the 1980's and was allegedly composed of Wall, who was head of the department at the time, and Assistant Professors Greg Snider and David McWilliam.

A woman who suffered lifetime consequences when she dropped out of SFU without finishing her degree due to alleged chronic sexual harassment, calls Wall the "crotch-watcher" due to his signature style of sexual harassment. "One thing he would do that really bothered me was he would stare at my crotch in a really obvious way and then he would look me right in the eyes."

This former student says her life was destroyed by the sexual harassment. She had to interrupt her education because she lost her ability to concentrate due to the sexual harassment. And after dropping out, she lost her student loan eligibility . . . .

Destroyed Room by Jeff Wall

Michael Audain, a condo developer who funded the award, has been aware for months of sexual harassment allegations against Wall. But Audain was apparently willing to overlook allegations that Wall's sexual harassment had resulted in a woman dropping out of SFU and entering a life of poverty on the Downtown Eastside. And Wall could hardly be seen as an ingrate: "As an artist you have to appreciate the fact that someone is appreciating you", he said when interviewed by the Vancouver Sun about the prize Audain had funded. The two men are apparently on a first name basis, with Wall referring to Audain as "Michael" in the Sun interview.

The Vancouver Art Gallery was aware when they hosted the Audain prize ceremony that Wall faced allegations of sexual harassment. Shortly after Kathleen Bartlett became Director, the VAG was asked to put a hold on accolades for Wall until SFU met its obligation to hold an investigation into sexual harassment in the SFU Visual Arts Department under Wall. A victim says she "spoke at length" to Bartlett's assistant about the allegations against Wall and still has her notes from that conversation. The VAG and Bartlett nonetheless continue to publicly present Wall as the VAG's little darling, giving the public no hint of their awareness that he evaded investigation for a serious matter.

The sexual harassment in the then tiny SFU Visual Arts Department -- just 15 students were accepted each year -- while it was headed by Wall also involved an element of fraud, alleges the woman who eventually dropped out due to sexual harassment. Each applicant to the School for the Contemporary Arts was expected to attend an interview, ostensibly so that their potential as an artist could be assessed, but there were indications that potential as a sex partner for professors was being assessed. The woman recalls being interviewed by Greg Snider and an administrator on the Burnaby campus. The two men were sitting side by side, both facing her, and when the adminstrator was jotting down notes, Snider sexually harassed her. “He gazed at my body, up and down. He was leering at me and then he tried to lock eyes with me.” She didn’t confront him, partly because she was shy, partly because she “couldn’t believe what was happening”, and partly because she desperately wanted to get accepted into the program. “I figured I could just avoid this letch if I got accepted,” she says. “But when I got in, I found out they were all like that!”

In fact, when the eventual drop-out arrived at her first Drawing class, the professor, Jeff Wall -- she didn't have a clue who he was at that time -- engaged in similar behavior. “It happened the instant I walked in the door,” she says. “I was just six feet in the door; it was as though he knew I was coming.” She had the impression that Snider had discussed her with Wall in advance. She believes that these professors were sharing information about potential conquests and being competitive in getting students into bed.

The woman who dropped out of SFU recalls finding Wall's brazen style of staring at her crotch odd considering he often came across as a shy man. She wasn't the only student who perceived him as shy. She recalls that after she disclosed the Visual Arts sexual harassment during a Women's (History) Studies class, a beautiful woman with long auburn hair and green eyes approached her outside the office of the School for the Contemporary Arts. The woman, whose name she recalls, was in both her Women Studies and Visual Arts studio classes but they didn't know one another well. The woman disclosed that Greg Snider had been putting the moves on her. Snider, she said, would stroke her back and say, "How's your back, [name]?" She imitated the soft voice he used as he asked her that question. (Snider had a spouse and at least once child.) The auburn-haired woman said she had not experienced sexual harassment from Wall but during the brief conversation that ensued, she did offer an observation, "He's a very shy man."

The woman who dropped out believes that Wall's gruff, even authoritarian communication style, was an effort to cover up his shyness. But he wasn't always gruff. Like when she was working in the SFU third year studio on Quebec St. and he commented, "You got your hair cut". She had gotten several inches trimmed off the ends of her hair and he told her, "It looks nice." Even that comment though made her uncomfortable because it was part of a pattern of inappropriately "intimate " conduct for a professor who was, to quote a phrase he once used with his class, "hanging a mark over your head".

It was during the same year, third year, that she was bent over on the floor working on her drawing when she looked up and saw Wall looking down her v-neck black sweat. A woman, Barbara, was speaking to him and he wasn't paying attention. "He was looking down my sweater."

She wishes now that she had spoken to the auburn-haired woman longer when she approached her outside the Center for the Contemporary Arts office in second year, but she remembers feeling "so burned out by the sexual harassment thing."

The auburn-haired woman, after confirming that she had not been sexually harassed by Wall, just Snider, said that Walll had actually recently come to her aid. It had been in response to David McWilliam (who was in a sexual relationship with another student from our class that year, the same year his spouse had a baby) telling her that he didn't think she should remain in the Visual Arts program due to her arthritis. She was in her early twenties but had arthritis in her back that occasionally required her to lie on the couch during studio classes, which were informal classes. She submitted a written complaint to the department that she was being discriminated against based on her disability. Wall then notified her that she was accepted her into third year.

That was part of the problem, says the woman who dropped out. "The sexual harassers got to pick who would get into third year." Students didn't automatically move from second to third year in Visual Arts; Wall, Snider, and McWilliam decided who they would allow to enter third year.

Keep in mind that the Visual Arts department, started by Wall, was small. There were only three studio instructors. Wall never hired a female studio instructor even though over 90% of the students accepted into the program were female. "All the studio professors were male and they were all trying to get laid", says the woman who would eventually drop out. After Wall left, women instructors began to be hired.

One of Wall's lifetime achievements not mentioned when he received the award at a ceremony at the Vancouver Art Gallery was allegedly hypocrisy. Wall, Snider, and McWilliam pretended to be sympathetic to feminism but it was an act. An act. The woman who dropped out recalls Wall showing up for a conference at a feminist video place on Broadway near Oak in Vancouver. She can't recall the exact name of the place but she does recall censorship being a theme of the conference. Lisa Steele, an artist from the Ontario College of Art presented a large-screen video of herself having sexual intercourse with her partner.

"Anyway, Wall shows up late and he sits at the head table and gives a keynote speech on something or other. I could barely listen, I was dumb founded. The crotch-watcher was at the head table! And feminists had invited him; he had them conned." This was just a few months before she would drop out of SFU due to the sexual harassment ring operating in the Visual Arts Department under Wall's stewardship, and it was roughly in this time period that a female Dance student left for Toronto to recover from her relationship with Wall whom she realized had no intention of divorcing his wife.

But you did not have to be a target of Wall's alleged sexual harassment to notice his hypocrisy. A former Theatre instructor in the SFU Center for the Contemporary Arts who acknowledged having had sex with a large number of women -- he was tight-lipped about whether any of them had been students and he avoided uttering even a peep about SFU's sexual harassment history -- recalled that Wall had crossed a picket line despite claiming to be a Marxist. (See Lifetime Achievement Award Given to Marxist who Crossed a Picket Line.)

After the woman who could no longer concentrate dropped out, she learned that Wall had left SFU and taken a job teaching photography at the University of British Columbia. He was later fired from UBC by Serge Gilbault, who was Department Head and a well known writer on art. The reason given by Gilbault in a front page article in the Vancouver Sun was that Wall was too often absent from work. That was a problem at SFU too says the woman who dropped out. Wall went to Holland for three weeks when she was in two of his third year classes, both a theory and a studio class, and he arranged no substitute instructor.

"It was hurtful", said the Downtown Eastside woman when asked how she felt after seeing Wall receive yet another award and more public accolades at the VAG. She would like to see a moratorium on awards for Wall until there is an investigation into the alleged sexual harassment ring that operated at SFU while he headed the Visual Arts Department.

Lifetime Achievement Award Given to Marxist Who Crossed a Picket Line

Here's a drawing Jeff Wall made as a teenager in the 1960s for the Vancouver Sun. The Sun reprinted it and other drawings last week after Wall received the Audain award for Lifetime Achievement at the Vancouver Art gallery on Thursday. Did Michael Audain, the condo developer who funded the award, include as an achievement the fact that Wall crossed a picket line while presenting himself to his students and the world as a Marxist?

A fellow instructor in the SFU Center for the Contemporary Arts never forgot about Wall crossing that picket line. It was during a conversation about SFU's sexual harassment history -- he was mum on the sexual harassment issue -- that he interjected this tidbit more than once. The hypocrisy of it still bothered him years later.

The strike the Theatre instructor was referring to would have been "before my time" at SFU, says the woman who dropped out of SFU due to sexual harassment. But she wasn't at all surprised to hear that Wall had crossed a picket line; she too had seen such tendencies in him. She saw them at a meeting between Visual Arts professors and students to discuss a pending general strike known as "Solidarity", which took place in the mid-1980s to protest the right-of-centre Social Credit government in British Columbia. When faced with the dilemma of whether he and his fellow professors would strike, Wall said emphatically, "It's illegal for us to go on strike!". It was her impression that he was rationalizing an intent to cross a picket line and come to work while workers province-wide were engaged in a general strike. She was struck by such an attitude on the part of a Marxist. "I told my friend [E.S.] what Wall had said. [E.S.] had been a Marxist when he was younger but he wasn't anymore." E.S. told her that she should have pointed out to Wall that most striking has been illegal at one time or another but that hasn't prevented workers from taking that action.

In the end though, a group decision was made that the entire Visual Arts Department would go out in support of the general strike. She believes the decision was actually made by representatives from all departments in the Center for the Contemporary Arts -- Visual Arts, Theatre, Acting, Music, Dance -- but she can't say for certain. "I didn't pay much attention to what was going on in other departments", she says. "I remember walking into studio class one afternoon and Greg Snider was in the entrance way and he announced that they were all going out the next day [when the general strike was to start]." He seemed "hyped up" about it.

Wall would possibly deny having crossed a picket line. It would be one man's word against another. Who ya gonna believe? Wall or the Theatre instructor who couldn't shake the memory of it?

Carnegie Locks Poor Out of Services

On Saturday, Carnegie locked the poor out of the Learning Center. On Saturday evening, they locked the poor out of the computer room.

Time to replace CUPE members responsible for keeping these services open: Colleen Gorrie, Rika Uto, and Gorrie's assistant, Sindi.

One Carnegie member had an explanation for the closures. "It's the weather. It's sunny out." It's gotten to the point where you have to listen to the weather report to know if services at Carnegie are going to be open.

Time to replace Ethel Whitty and Dan Tetrault. But that won't happen. You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.