The long term damage of harassment

Speaking out about sexual harassment and assault in the arts sector can be frightening. Here, three women describe the personal and professional impact of calling it out.
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Richard Watts

Friday 25 October, 2019

The aftershocks of surviving sexual assault vary for every individual, but while many have spoken about the toll such crimes take on the individual, few in the arts sector have spoken openly about the way sexual assault has impacted on their professional lives – until now.

The Adelaide Advertiser recently reported on the ‘lewd and inappropriate behaviour’ of gallerist Ben Leslie, the co-founder and co-director of Port Adelaide’s Fontanelle Gallery. The article notes that ‘multiple women levelled accusations of repeated sexual and physical harassment’ against Leslie.

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Numerous sources have told ArtsHub Leslie’s behaviour was an open secret in the city for years. During this time his presence at high profile arts industry events went largely unchallenged despite the allegations circulating about him.

Blaming his behaviour on ‘addiction and alcoholism,’ Leslie recently told the Advertiser: ‘My behaviour caused me to behave in a way which I regret.’

When approached by ArtsHub for comment, Leslie referred us to his statement to the Advertiser.

Read: SA gallerist apologises over sexual harassment allegations

SURVIVORS SPEAK

South Australian video, installation and performance artist Ray Harris, one of several women to allege interactions of a harassing, sexual or bullying nature with Leslie over a seven-year period, said she was disappointed with the way his behaviour was reported across the media to date.

‘His apologies were given more space, clout and [even more headline coverage] than the victims. How he was affected – the effects on the victims so far has not been mentioned, which is so infuriating,’ she told ArtsHub.

‘Each story so far has made it seem he apologised to the victims. He did not. He apologised to the media, which – as is glaringly obvious – is not relevant. Why again is the perpetrator given the most coverage? The last word, a chance to redeem himself – not to the victims but to the wider public to save face,’ Harris said.

Creative producer Jennifer Greer Holmes alleges she was sexually assaulted by Leslie at a public event she was managing in Rundle Mall in September 2014.

‘On the night, I was managing the event that he assaulted me at, and so I was in one of my work places, in a management role, managing staff and volunteers and all the guests. I also witnessed him assaulting another person which is when I made the decision to have him ejected,’ Greer Holmes said.

Thereafter, her first instinct was to get on with her job. ‘I guess the immediate effect was that I couldn’t really deal with it in the moment – I had to work and had to save face and maintain control,’ she explained.

Sometime later Greer Holmes realised she had tried to minimise the impact of the assault.

‘Because I was able to just power through, because that’s the job, a few days later I was really questioning how bad it was, even though I felt sick about what had happened. But there was a part of me that was like, “Well, I managed to get through,” and so that’s resulted in a lot of confusion in the short term.

‘It wasn’t until later, after I had other people who had witnessed it validating my experience, that I realised that something very serious had happened and that’s when the fear kicked in.

‘And in terms of the way that it’s affected my work – the nature of my work, and of several of his victims’ work, is that we work in the public realm. We produce events, we exhibit work, people know where we’re going to be and when, because that’s part of the job.

‘And the pattern of his behaviour is that he does these things in public, at events, and so there’s been a period of years now that I’d just written off that I would ever go to an exhibition opening at venues in Adelaide ever again, because I don’t want to run the risk of running into him,’ Greer Holmes said.

'There’s been a period of years now that I’d just written off that I would ever go to an exhibition opening at venues in Adelaide ever again, because I don’t want to run the risk of running into him.'

Olivia Kathigitis, a sculpture and installation artist based in Adelaide, detailed her allegations of being sexually assaulted by Leslie – including subsequent verbal harassment – in a statement to the South Australian Police.

After the initial incident, Kathigitis said, ‘I silenced myself, which feeds into the toxic complacency of the arts. The main problem within this scenario is that his behaviour was in our workplace, as artists’ studios, events and certain opportunities are our abstract office-space. His drunken, back-handed apologies made him believe he was diluting the impact he caused, but in reality, he was threatening; throwing his weight around and perpetuating a silent fear.’

As an emerging female artist in South Australia, Kathigitis said she was afraid of making waves by complaining about Leslie’s behaviour.

‘I felt I had no choice but to pretend that nothing had happened. I applied for a Fontanelle exhibition in 2016, attended Fontanelle openings and associated with [Leslie] at events, not knowing that my silence allowed him to hurt more people.’

She continued: ‘He had surrounded himself with those who fed his ego and would defend him at the drop of a hat – all high personas within the arts industry. I found myself limiting how much I gave of myself to the arts and my worth as a professional artist. The passion for my professional career was a low burning flame – on the edge of being extinguished with any slight wind of another attack. Seeing him get promoted and thrown opportunities made me lose confidence in the Australian arts industry. He assaulted me in my workplace – our workplace. My silence out of fear supported him and his career.’

CROSSING PATHS

From her perspective as a visual artist, Harris said she was struggling to put into words the impact of Leslie’s behaviour on her career.

‘I don’t know that I could quantify how it has affected my career specifically beyond the stress of having rumours told about me for years to many of my peers; being subjected to Ben’s behaviour of course; and the anxiousness of seeing him and his partner and supporters at openings and events,’ she said.

Similarly, Greer Holmes said she had ‘a very real fear’ of running into Leslie at arts industry events and was forced to come up with a number of strategies to ensure her emotional and physical safety at such functions.

She also began avoiding Port Adelaide – despite having a long and personal connection with the area – as that is where Fontanelle Gallery is based.

‘I have avoided Port Adelaide, which is where the gallery is based, since it moved there. And that is the community that I grew up in! That’s where my family lives and where Vitalstatistix, which I have a decade-long relationship with, is based and that I spend a lot of time in,’ Greer Holmes explained.

‘Like, I do not go to the Port any more on my own and if I do, I’m not going anywhere that has got what I consider to be a higher risk than what I’m prepared to take in terms of being on my own in a car park, outside a pub – all those sorts of things that lots of women and queers do anyway in terms of gauging what their safety is in public, but it’s really elevated in the Port.’

PERSONAL IMPACT

As an independent artist, the personal and professional realms are closely linked for Harris; a situation that is all too common in the sector, where the lines between personal and professional are constantly blurred. Consequently, she finds it easier to quantify the personal impact of Leslie’s harassment upon her personal life.

Many of the incidents she has reported occurred at arts events that were both social and professional. ‘The effects are far more affecting emotionally, psychologically and in terms of the safety and respect of being a woman – and a woman in the arts,’ she said.

‘It can make it hard to keep pushing through an already difficult career path when you see abusers get great opportunities, bad behaviour be excused and allowed for a long time, safety be totally compromised to again afford them special status over acknowledgment of victims and harder working but less “networking” artists.

‘It can make it hard to keep pushing through an already difficult career path when you see abusers get great opportunities, bad behaviour be excused.'

‘It feels hard to retain a connection to my arts community as paranoia and fear of what might happen is felt along with feeling alone, unsupported and dismissed,’ said Harris.

Olivia Kathigitis puts things simply but powerfully. ‘It is incredibly hard to see yourself as a victim,’ she said.

The personal toll on Greer Holmes has also been significant, to the point that she has moved away from Adelaide and now works out of Sydney. ‘This all played in a part in that decision-making. It wasn’t the only reason I moved here by any means but … that was definitely part of my decision-making in moving away because I don’t have to think about running into him over here,’ she told ArtsHub.

ISOLATION

Having spoken out about her experiences, Greer Holmes said she is now experiencing ‘a kind of isolation after coming out publicly’.

‘After the Advertiser article was printed, we received lots of public support from our peers and our friends and people behind the scenes who knew that there was something in the works, because that article took about a year to arrange. But there’s this strange isolation now because that level of exposure that we are going through – with absolute consent and willingness – it’s another level of vulnerability, and it’s another risk to take because nobody wants to be seen as a trouble-maker.

‘We’re conscious that our names are out there now, and our stories are out there, and it’s this ever-growing distance between people who understand what it’s like and people who don’t,’ she continued.

‘And even within a group of people who have also been targeted by him who didn’t feel safe in coming out publicly – which is completely understandable and I have absolutely no beef with them making a decision not to come out publicly – but even so it puts a distance between people. And that affects your career in terms of just the amount of time that this takes: the processing and thinking and the distractions and the conversations that me and the other women who are in the article are having to have with each other, because we are the only ones who understand what this feels like – it’s labour-intensive in terms of both emotion and time.

‘It’s bigger than I anticipated, but I’m also not willing to stop. It’s important work – and it feels like work, that’s the thing,’ Greer Holmes said.

SUPPORTING FREELANCERS AND INDEPENDENTS

Artists and arts workers employed by a company or organisation will already have protocols to follow for reporting sexual harassment, bullying and assault – though as recent cases have illustrated, following appropriate guidelines can be challenging. Such processes don’t exist for freelance producers like Jennifer Greer Holmes. What would she like to see change?

‘It’s a funny question to be asked because I actually haven’t considered it before. I’m so used to going it alone and making my own support that I rarely think about the structures that don’t exist anymore! Probably because I don’t have the time,’ she laughed.

‘Overall, I guess I’d like to see more awareness-raising – which is what I’m trying to do and what my comrades are trying to do to stop the behaviour, or at least minimise the behaviour and minimise the targets that these people have access to,’ Greer Holmes said.

CHANGING THE CULTURE

Kathigitis said she sees some progress in the sector in terms of organisations believing the issues that are brought to their attention and standing by their purported zero tolerance policies around bullying and assault.

‘The downfall of this is that it relies on victims to come forward and suffer the repercussions … and I am fearful that this will not be taken seriously … that he will re-emerge when the heat has subsided,’ she told ArtsHub.

Allegations should be pursued urgently when they are made, Kathigitis added. ‘I think it is only fair that organisations place a character reference in applications and job positions, as well as people [in positions] of power asking their peers for organic accounts. Why shouldn’t there be? That person will go on to represent the organisation and become a potential liability.’

She also said it was time to reconsider the way things have always been done in the arts.

‘Break the cycle of “It’s not what you know, it's who you know”. Judge someone on their merit and character, rather than their status. Hold people accountable by giving weight to allegations,’ Kathigitis said.

WHAT THE SECTOR SHOULD DO

Ray Harris is adamant that the sector needs to get better at identifying predators and refusing to work with them.

‘It feels sometimes like no one cares; of course some do and are really great but the overall wider message is “Let's just forget this happened,”’ she said.

One of the most important things people can do is to listen to their friends and colleagues, Harris continued.

‘Listen! Just listen, and hear the person’s experience. Don’t tell them that person was nice to you. Why does that matter? Stop giving power to that person as if it’s more important to stay on their side, or neutral, than support your friends and colleagues. Someone only has as much power as others give them ... Our sector needs to stop, as they all do, supporting these behaviours via silence and inertia,’ she said.  

‘Our sector needs to stop, as they all do, supporting these behaviours via silence and inertia.’

‘Sometimes as a victim you would like supporters or your fellow non-victim group members to fight for you, or at least with you, and some most definitely do but most don’t. Share the issue … [and] show your open public support. ... Show other victims it’s good to come out. Organisations need to stand up too and take the lead in this; they are in a much stronger position and as independent artists we look to them to show an example, act and protect us,’ Harris continued.

‘In this case alone there are at least five other victims who will not speak out because they are scared – worried they will be tainted or receive unwanted attention, worried about their careers and the effects on that, worried they won't be believed or supported. There are others who witnessed bad behaviours who have not spoken out or added to the discussion, which would really help.

‘All these things make victims look like exaggerators and make these things seem unimportant. It’s a kind of sector-wide gaslighting – from the perpetrator obviously, but more insidiously outwards to the top.

‘These things don’t ever get better via silence,’ Harris concluded.

If this article has raised issues or emotions you would like to discuss with a counsellor, support is available nationally: call 1800 RESPECT for the free, 24-hour National Sexual Assault, Family & Domestic Violence Counselling Service. Phone: 1800 737 732 or go to www.1800respect.org.au