Tate 'banned' a Black artist after accusing donor of sexual abuse

Evie Lake reports on artist Jade Montserrat's accusations of abuse against Anthony d'Offay and her subsequent struggle with the Tate

Evie Lake
24th March 2021
Photo: Tony Hisgett, via Wikimedia

Content Warning: sexual abuse, sexual harassment, racism

In 2017 the artist and activist Jade Montserrat went public on Twitter with accusations of sexual harassment against major Tate donor and art-world titan Anthony d’Offay. What ensued was years worth of attempted silencing, closed doors and legal investigations. 

They first met in 2012, her a young artist starting out and him a 72 art-dealer, a dynamic we are all well familiar with by now. Very quickly d’Offay persistently tried to blur the lines between a professional and personal relationship, with Montserrat herself saying immediately: “The boundary between the professional and the personal was completely compromised and Mr d'Offay would frequently make reference to the opportunities he could give me access to in the context of his sexual demands. At the same time, he encouraged me to think of him as a father figure.”

In what was a clear behavioural pattern (three other women accused d’Offay of sexual assault and harassment in 2018), d’Offay established himself as an integral part of Montserrat’s life. In 2015 Montserrat was struggling financially, d’Offay started paying her stipends, leverage that was then used to control Montserrat’s boyfriends and behaviour. On multiple occasions d’Offay would show Montserrat violent, racialised art and expect her not to comment, watching her closely for a reaction. One occasion saw him show her Hitler’s speeches. 

After years of controlling, harassment and a suicide attempt, in 2017 Montserrat decided to go public with her experience. Alongside her allegations, Montserrat attached a selfie d’Offay had sent to her previously- posing with a googly-eyed golliwog. This image swiftly moved the discourse onto the Tates historic and dominant white-curational bias. Tate’s response? that d’Offay personally championed John Akonfrah’s work, a black artist.

Evidently, the Tate rushed to quell any accusations of racism on d’Offay’s behalf, seemingly ignoring the allegations of sexual abuse. 

In 2018, following Montserrat and the other women’s allegations, the Tate cut ties with d’Offay, before discreetly restoring them: a case of performative action that couldn’t even be upheld for a year. 

2019: two years after Montserrat went public with her experience Amy Sharrocks tried to bring her on board as a co-curator for an exhibition at the Tate: A Rumor of Waves. Some days after announcing her involvement, Cara Courage (head of Tate Exchange) informed Sharrocks that she couldn’t work with Montserrat. Later, it became apparent to Sharrocks just how terrified the Tate was of d’Offay. Via Zoom, Sharrock learnt of the helplessness attached to Tate staff concerning d’Offay, an angering helplessness. The director of the Tate, Anna Cutler had no doubt of Montserrat’s experience, however, Tate staff are legally forced to stay silent on the issue. 

To Vice, Sharrocks confirmed that Courage said: “when [the Tate] announced they were going to suspend any contact [with d'Offay], there were immediate actions taken by his lawyers that meant that they couldn't really operate as an institution." 

After an ethics committee- consisting of two QCs- ruled there wasn’t enough evidence against d’Offay, the Tate then accused Montserrat of ‘engaging in a hostile campaign against 16 members of staff’, but no evidence was produced. It is evident that the Tate didn’t just want to silence Montserrat, they wanted to obliterate her. Even if under a legal obligation to d’Offay there is little explanation as to why the Tate continued to pursue her, seeking to make up falsities. 

As late as 2020 the Tate finally announced, albeit quietly, a mutual end to their relationship with d’Offay following Sharrocks directly asking for mediation. The mediation was denied and then A Rumour of Waves was officially cancelled. Then Tate sustained that the two were “entirely unrelated”. 

Following this, Montserrat filed a subject access request, making the Tate disclose all emails wherein her name and d’Offay’s were attached. The emails revealed that they had concluded the golliwog selfie was entirely an ambiguous and personal matter, as well as deciding Montserrat and d’Offay’s relationship was “apparently consensual”. Alongside the emails, Montserrat asked for any evidence that has been compiled against her that allude to her engaging in the 'hostile' behaviour she had been accused of. In response she received a dossier of tweets and Instagram posts wherein the only staff member tagged was the then-Chair of the Board of Trustees. There was no evidence against her, just blind accusations. 

Naturally, there have been calls for the Tate to publicly apologise to Montserrat, with the artist collective Industria collecting signatures for an open letter. As well as a public apology, Industria is calling for the Tate to reform its ethics committee and absorb d’Offay’s Artist Rooms collection into the rest of the Tate.

To Vice, Montserrat concluded: “I want to be able to concentrate on my work… And that’s impossible as long as Tate especially and Anthony with his lawyers are a threat to the working conditions of me and people like me.”    

Yes, the Tate was legally tied to d’Offay but what is unclear is why they continued to pursue Montserrat after his departure; Tate’s inability to apologise and take account for the misbehaviour and bullying that has occurred. Anna Cutler seems to have admitted to Sharrocks of her belief in the accusations, that she didn’t doubt it. And yet, here we are. Ultimately, any hope of Montserrat inspiring more women to come forward, not just in the case of d’Offay but also more generally, has been quelled by the years of trauma and disbelief. This is a scenario you expect to squirm at from the 20th Century, not 2020 - not post-Me Too. The Tate has successfully conjured an archaic and tone-deaf dispute and their only hope is to own up and apologise for their behaviour. It is d’Offay who committed the acts but, as an institution that seeks to champion and nurture artists, it is Tate that comes out as the bad guy.

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