Photography Holly Whitaker

Why the Tate’s artist in residence has quit

Liv Wynter says the gallery is failing women

This International Women's Day, you've probably seen a lot of corporate performative allyship. Companies who use women for exploitative labour are peddling girl power t-shirts, McDonald’s has flipped the golden arches to a “W” for “woman” – which really means absolutely nothing – and Brewdog has tried really hard to justify making beer for girls with a pink label, because feminism.

What we should really be talking about today, though, is the struggle many women still face to be heard. This was shown today in the actions of activist and artist Liv Wynter. She quit her role as artist in residence at the Tate via a public a declaration of independence. In her resignation letter, she pointed to the institution's links, and response, to museum donor Anthony d’Offay’s alleged misconduct.

Anthony d'Offay is one of the most powerful figures in the contemporary British art world. In 2008, he donated almost his entire art collection to the galleries for the price he had paid originally. The then-director of the Tate, Nicholas Serota, called it “one of the most generous gifts that has ever been made to museums in this country.” But after recent allegations of sexual assault dating back to 1997, the Tate suspended contact with the art dealer.

The institution’s director, Maria Balshaw, then said: “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 was the final straw for Wynter, a Sisters Uncut campaigner who recently stormed the BAFTA red carpet in solidarity with #TimesUp to raise awareness about domestic violence.

“I cannot describe to you the personal shame I feel as a survivor of domestic violence, to work for someone who could think so little of me whilst simultaneously profiting off my ‘survivorness’ and the work I dare to make about it,” she wrote in her resignation letter. “What power do I have as an individual in this space? (...) This makes it clear to me, there must be people on the inside, inside the cogs playing the long game – but there must be people beating on the walls and screaming for urgency too.”

We caught up with her to talk about the risk of protest, the false allyship of art institutions, and what’s next.

What’s the general feeling about your resignation among other artists in residence at the Tate?

Liv Wynter: Well, I spoke to them about it from the very start, I wasn't about to leave anyone in trouble. Also I really stand by them and think they do really great work, I tried to keep them as much in-the-know as I could. I've seen some public support, but I'm also aware that they still work for the Tate so they might not feel able to communicate. As we know, the Tate is quite a silencing space. I've had a lot of private messages but I don't think many will be able to go public and feel safe in doing that.

What developments have there been in this Anthony d’Offay story?

Liv Wynter: The communication was, of course, awful. (The Tate) saw it as such a big problem because of the vast quantity of work that is attached to Anthony, so I think they felt the only thing they could do was sweep it under the rug. I also feel like a lot of artists who gave work to Anthony, now would be a really great time (for them) to come forward and sever ties and say, “Okay, I gave my work as a gift to Anthony at a certain time, and now I take it back and I want it to be known that I don't support this person anymore.”

The timing of your letter I'm sure was pretty deliberate, in that it’s International Women’s Day.

Liv Wynter: Yeah, absolutely. On International Women's Day all I want to do is speak for the silenced voice of survivors. It was so interesting reading the newspaper this morning and seeing that Theresa May's bill's about to come out, which really focuses on the criminalisation of survivors (of domestic violence). They’re talking about using electric tags on people to protect them or banning perpetrators from going to the pub – these kind of distractions (from cuts to vital services) take place in the government. On a micro level, the same thing's happening at the Tate. There's distractions like Late at the Tate’s diverse events and the programme I was on, which stop the actual structure from being challenged. I'm bored of seeing feminism viewed through a capitalist lens, and I thought the most radical thing I could do under that was remove my labour, at the risk of losing a grand a month – a lot for a poor queer woman! I'm sure my mum is very stressed somewhere. But that felt like the only radical option left. You've taken my dignity, you've taken my pride. All I have left to take from you is myself.

“There’s so much labour that goes into just being an artist and surviving in the world and that makes us really, really unsafe and it makes us really insecure” – Liv Wynter

That’s the thing that really got to me about your story – that you’re the one that’s lost an opportunity because the institution isn’t listening to women.

Liv Wynter: I was afraid that people would be scared to work with me, because I've always had a reputation of a really nice, easy person to work with. I hope that people understand this isn't a threat to individuals and that it's just a commentary on how an institution works. I saw quitting as a direct action, in the same way that you would think of a protest. The Tate has few black or ethnic minority, or LGBT people in the workforce. Every single director is white. I've returned to the integrity I always championed myself for having. That's better than a paycheque, to be honest. Mind you, I say that now but maybe call me in a month and see if I've got a job! But right now I'm feeling empowered from that action.

The art world has had a few high profile names accused in this sexual harassment #MeToo wave that's happening. But there’s a lot less transparency – why?

Liv Wynter: There’s so much job insecurity in art. You could go from making two grand a month to 20 quid with no understanding of why. It takes ages to get invoices, we have to fight to get paid. There's so much labour that goes into just being an artist and surviving in the world and that makes us really, really unsafe and it makes us really insecure to talk about stuff. Say I do this and I get blacklisted, that's it, you won't hear from me again. I'm lucky I've still got a support group around me and legitimised myself as an activist as well an artist. I’m happy people like Travis Alabanza have spoken out and it's starting to happen but I'm also not angry at anyone who feels they can't speak, it’s a big risk.

What’s next for you?

Liv Wynter: I’ve got a couple of exhibitions coming up, but I’m kind of hoping this opens a door for me to reach out to more artist spaces that are really community-based. I’d like to return to the grassroots – I’m ready to take a step back from trying to fit into a jigsaw where I’m not really welcome yet.

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