Full Interview Transcripts: Oberlin Engages In Wider Conversations About Sexual Misconduct

This week, the Review published a story about the impact of the #MeToo movement on campus. In preparation for writing this article, we reached out to a variety of people and organizations on campus, and many students, staff, and faculty members shared their experiences and perspectives on the movement. These interviews were invaluable in crafting an overview of the ways in which our community is interacting with this broader social movement. While we were unable to use the full content of every interview within the scope of that article, we believe that these interviews are worth sharing with the community in their entirety. Therefore, we have decided to publish the full text of all the interviews that we used only limited portions of in the article here. We deeply appreciate everyone who spoke with us about the #MeToo movement, and we would like to invite the members of our community to continue sharing their perspectives with us if they so choose, either in the comments of this article or directly to Arts & Culture Editor Julia Peterson at [email protected].

Interviews by Julia Peterson, Arts & Culture Editor

Editor’s note: These interviews contain mention of sexual harassment and sexual assault. They have been edited for length and clarity.

Olivia Fountain, OC ’17, curatorial assistant for the office of academic programs.

This semester, Fountain curated a show at the Allen Memorial Art Museum titled Handle with Care: Embracing Fragility. Shortly before the exhibit was set to open, news came to light that one of the artists whose work was featured in the exhibit had been accused of sexual misconduct by multiple women.

I started my job [at the AMAM] over the summer, and starting in July, I knew that I was going to be curating a show. So I’d been thinking about it for the whole five or six months prior to December. I had all of my copy due in mid-November, so at this point, I was pretty much done with the show. It wasn’t yet up, but I’d done all the conceptual work and all of the writing, I’d thought about the order, and I was done with it. And then on … the day before I was getting ready to leave, it just came up in my news feed on Facebook. The news had broken that Chuck Close was being accused of sexual harassment by four women. I had a visceral reaction to reading it, which wasn’t new. This was in the height of the beginning of the #MeToo movement, where you keep hearing these stories about people that you admire, and it just sucks every single time. But this time it was even more of a sinking feeling. I knew that I couldn’t not do something about it.

I was in Oberlin for one more day before I left Oberlin for break, and I immediately reached out to my boss and the museum and also to the curator of Modern and Contemporary Art to ask their advice, to ask ‘What now?’ I know that this conversation about separating the art from the artist is something that goes on in a lot of museums. There’s a lot of artists out there who have documented histories of not being great people in a bunch of different ways. There’s so many cases where you know that an artist is iffy, and yet their work remains on display. People talk about talking about it, but don’t actually talk about it in the space of the museum. The museum itself is not encouraging those conversations. So I met with one of the curators, and we had a really long and productive conversation about whether or not to remove the piece. My original instinct was to remove the piece, and there were a number of reasons why I ultimately decided that that wasn’t the best idea, one of them being purely logistical — the show was literally ready to be mounted. It was going to be mounted the first day after we all returned from break. But, after having this conversation and talking with a lot of my peers and doing a lot of soul-searching on my own, I decided that the most effective way to force this kind of conversation to happen in the Allen — the conversation being whether or not we can separate the art from the artists in a museum space — would be to definitely not shy away from what happened, but also to leave the work up. And so I decided to recontextualize it, to write an additional label being pretty explicit about what happened. The label says something to the effect of, ‘If this information had been available sooner, it would not have been included in the show,’ and that’s true. If I ever curate anything again, I will never include something by Chuck Close. As a hypothetical future curator, personally, I would stay away from art by artists who have abused women. That’s terrible and obviously not something that I condone.

In this new context, I hope that it can act as a catalyst for conversations that we need to have about how to show art by artists who are not good people, but also talk about the importance of intersectionality in the conversation that I was trying to have about fragility, where I’m basically applauding Chuck Close for depicting a person who is a person of color who has been portrayed in a very specific way by the media, in this very gentle way. I’m applauding Chuck Close for doing that, for using this pretty fraught medium that’s associated with whiteness to show an Afro-Cuban subject. We need to realize that just because Chuck Close is doing a good job on this aspect, he is not doing a good job on this other aspect of his practice and ideology. And that’s really important to acknowledge.

I recontextualized it with this label, and later on we made the decision to add a comment book as well, so people can leave comments and write about alternative practice or opinions. I’m still not sure if this was the right decision. I think a lot about doing right by those women, and this decision — even though it’s final as it applies to the show itself — I am still thinking a lot about this.

I’m somebody that wants to go into museum education. I want to work in museums, talking with people about art, as my life’s work. And one of the basic tenets of museum education as I see it is that any person that’s interacting with a work of art can have a meaningful interaction with that work of art, and you never know what they’re bringing to the table in the context of them looking at this work. No interpretation is a wrong interpretation. If looking at a piece speaks to this deeply personal experience you’ve had that I could never know about, that’s great. It’s my job to account for not being able to account for these things. In that sense, a museum can be a really great space to show works. People can come in, they can read the label if they want, and they can feel however they want to feel about it. I think that any response to a work of art is valid and important, and so to that end, I think it’s not a great idea to start taking art off walls in museums. But I also think that every viewer has the right to be totally informed about the piece they’re looking at, so again, they can choose not to read the label, they can choose to engage with it just on this aesthetic level, but if they want to read more about this artist and if they want to read more about this piece, they deserve to know that the person who created the work has been accused by — at this point — eight people of sexual harassment. That’s really important. That’s an important thing to think about in the context of the piece as well. I don’t think a lot of museums are going to be taking works down. Maybe in the context of Chuck Close they will, but there are so many artists that this could apply to — the question becomes, once you start, how do you stop? Where do you draw the line? An I think that by instead recontextualizing these pieces and being very, very up-front in your label text or whatever literature you’re providing in the gallery about the artist’s background, especially as it relates to sexual harassment and abuse, I think that’s crucial. That’s a museum’s job. And so by recontextualizing this Chuck Close piece, I wanted to demonstrate something that museums can do. If taking things down feels like a bad idea for a bunch of different reasons, we can put more stuff up. But I also think, moving forward — the thing I just said about when you start taking stuff down, where do you draw the line? That speaks to the fact that museum galleries are filled with art by men that have abused women, and that’s a problem. It’s something that we as museum professionals need to actively work to counter. That means being really proactive about elevating the work of women artists, artists of color, contemporary artists, and people whose work is worth looking at and worth celebrating and also by people who have not abused women or done something else.

I guess it circles back to my comment earlier — if I were to do this again with the information I have now, I obviously would not have included a portrait by Chuck Close. But as it is, as everything fell, I tried to turn this into an opportunity to think about these complicated issues about how to appreciate art, either at face value or in historical context.

Below is the text of the additional label that Fountain wrote for the Chuck Close portrait, as well as the text that accompanies the comment book.

Label: As final touches were being put on this exhibition, multiple women came forward with accusations of sexual harassment against Chuck Close. That Close has an alleged history of treating women without the respect he granted Serrano, an artist of color whose own career has been tinged by controversy, illustrates the need for intersectionality in the conversations we have about fragility. Had this information been available sooner this work would have been excluded from the show, but at present I hope viewers can engage with the important questions it raises about power, sexism, separating the art from the artist, and the role museums can play in the #MeToo movement.

Comment book: In light of allegations of sexual harassment from multiple women against Chuck Close, whose portrait of Andres Serrano is on view in Handle with Care: Embracing Fragility, art institutions across the country are grappling with how to display and contextualize work by him and by other artists whose names have been associated with harassment, assault, racism, or violence. We are asking that question too, and we believe that an open dialogue is the best place to start. We recognize that there will be different opinions on these issues and we want to hear yours. If you have thoughts about Close’s work in this exhibition, or Handle With Care: Embracing Fragility more broadly, please share them here.

College senior India Wood, PRSM trainer

One thing that PRSM specifically is trying to focus on — and also a project of mine that I am trying to do before I leave — is thinking more about how people in positions of power, specifically straight cis men, but also anybody who carries any identity-based power, can change the way that they think about sex and also change the way that they think about consent, and think harder about the ways that we connect with people.

I think especially with the Aziz Ansari case, that really freaked people out because some people didn’t even know why he did wasn’t okay. That, in my opinion, goes to show the ways in which we completely misunderstand people’s cues, and the way that we misunderstand having open conversations about preferences and what we want and what we don’t want. Even on this campus, too, I really don’t think people have the language skills around sex, and sexuality, and love, and romance to be able to talk about these things in ways that allow for completely consentual and good interactions to occur. I think people are really anxious about talking about sex, and that anxiety often can become something a lot more sinister and a lot more harmful, even when it’s not ‘intended’ to be that way. I think that’s everyone’s responsibility to do something about, whether it be simply starting conversations like this, or educating oneself.

Something I’ve been really focusing on is how to get specifically straight cis men, but also anybody who identifies as a man, to just talk more about vulnerability, especially among other men. I think it’s really important that the culture of masculinity shifts, because a lot of this has to do with power and masculinity, and I think it would be important to shift that culture into something that’s more soft, more vulnerable, and more open for questions. Consent and good sex requires questions, and requires good questions, and in the process of socializing men, we never really teach people how to ask good questions and how to be curious about each other. That’s really scary, because then we introduce young boys to things like sex and interacting with people that they’re attracted to, and they don’t know how to ask those questions, and it can translate into really violent situations that then all these people who are victimized have to deal with the ramifications of, and people who perpetrated don’t necessarily have to deal with the ramifications of until maybe something like a celebrity is revealed as having perpetrated countless things. And the worst part of it is that they don’t necessarily know that they perpetrated something bad, which is horrifying.

In the context of this campus, I think it’s really pertinent that we start thinking about how we can talk to each other in ways that people understand, and ways that empower each other to make decisions that are well-informed and mutually-understandable. We always define what consent is in our PRSM trainings, and one [part of the definition] that is not as stressed as I want it to be … is that an important part of consent also includes being enthusiastic about what’s going to happen. Especially with the Aziz article, people were like, ‘Well, she didn’t have a good time, but she never said no.’ But obviously, no one should be in that situation if they’re not excited about it. I think a lot of people here feel like they’ve been in hookup situations or sexual situations where they weren’t enthusiastic about it, and that’s not fair. It’s not fair that people are put in those situations and feel like they have to go through with it. And I feel like those situations can be changed if we were just more open and honest and enthusiastic and asked better questions of each other and were curious, and I don’t think we have that skill yet.

It’s not just about straight cis men abusing power. I think, wherever there is power to be found in relationships, be they sexual or not, whenever there’s a power imbalance it can be abused, and it is often abused. When we don’t have open conversations about those power dynamics, that’s when people start abusing it, and that’s when it gets really scary. There should be more open conversations about how this affects the queer community, and hopefully that is coming. I think it’s harder to have a dialogue on these things because we … don’t necessarily have the same rhetoric around it, so it’s harder for us to talk about, whereas this trope of a scary man and a victimized woman is something that we’re more used to talking about. But I don’t think that this is just a problem between straight men and straight women. I think it really is a problem of power, and it’s a problem of not having language around sex and relationships, and not being able to talk about it properly.

Rebecca Mosely, Director of the Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, and Title IX Coordinator

I would say that the #MeToo movement has continued to bring more awareness. I think Oberlin has been in a space on campus where the awareness has been here for a number of years now, and so I would say, within the student population here, I think it’s had less impact, though it brings support to the work that students were already doing. I would say the impact to me is supporting more alum of the college, as they become aware of the #MeToo movement outside of what we’re doing here because they don’t have the same privilege to be part of what we’re already doing here on campus. They’re not getting that education in their daily life. #MeToo, I think, has brought awareness beyond our campus, and that has definitely had an impact for alum to feel like they can finally speak up and speak their truth. On campus, I think the good thing [about the movement] is that it keeps it prevalent in people’s minds, so it’s not just that thing that my office or PRSM are doing to educate students, but it’s a much broader social movement. I think, because of that, what we’re seeing is more ongoing interest in making sure that our community is safe from harm that is sexual or gender-based. So I actually think, in some ways, it’s been a call to action.

For us, before the #MeToo movement even really started, we started our awareness campaign for the year — Let’s Make Consent a Conversation. I think one of the things that we’re really focusing on with the work that we’re trying to do is really reminding students that this needs to be an ongoing conversation, and not that thing that you learned about during your first year and then forgot about as you continued in your time here. Our PRSM trainers that work with us are phenomenal, and they do two educational sessions for all first-year students: one being consent essentials, in the Fall semester, and then bystander intervention training Spring semester. … They’ve also created a number of other workshops to take it beyond that. Fall semester, an additional workshop that they did was consent for men, and they had over 50 men show up to that workshop, which I think just speaks to the interest of our students in making sure that people are trying to get it right. We’re going to be doing consent month for the month of April, which also is sexual assault awareness month, so we’ll be advertising that in the next couple of weeks. We’ve got a couple speakers coming in, we’ve got the clothesline project coming in from the Nord center, which is a national project that allows the voices of survivors of gender-based violence to put their message out there, so we’ll be advertising that. The PRSM folks will be doing lots of workshops that month, and SIC … is going to do sexual health work that month. I’m really excited to see the ongoing work that the campus is doing to really continue the conversation.

College senior Eliza Edwards

We’re reading an article this week in my Chinese language class about the #MeToo movement in the context of Chinese women standing up to sexual harassment in academia. It’s really powerful to watch #MeToo spread from Tarana Burke to Hollywood to Oberlin and beyond — it strikes me as pretty incredible that a movement can have such a swift impact not only on an intensely personal level, but also on a global stage.

It’s also really empowering to be able to speak about these issues in my second language. When I was abroad I spent a lot of time thinking about ways in which silence affects the body — there were so many things I couldn’t express because I didn’t have the words. Using many languages to talk about social issues like sexual harassment is yet another avenue through which to process the world around us and find ways to support survivors.

College senior Sarah Blum

I think, for me, the story that I found to be the most teachable was when Aziz Ansari’s interaction with a woman became viral. And I remember reading this and I remember thinking that this is about many Oberlin men I’ve encountered — feminist on the outside, but in their interpersonal relationships, they really still have a long way to go. And I think that his story revealed a lot of hypocrisy. I find that, within this conversation generally, it’s really easy to say all the rights things and make oneself out to be a supporter of this movement, but that means nothing if you’re not taking those ramifications, and making them internal, and having them affect the way that you interact with people day-to-day. I think it’s really easy for people who sexually harass and sexually assault people to say that they’re part of the #MeToo movement, because it’s just a public affirmation. And I think, for me, that’s my biggest issue with the movement, and with some of these hashtag-movements generally — typing #MeToo is a really easy action to do. And once again, putting that burden on the women that have been harassed and assaulted just perpetuates [a system where] the people that have been hurt are usually the ones doing the work. I feel that that is just not right. And ultimately, it won’t get to the places we need to go, just because women have been saying this for ages. Just the fact that there’s a hashtag isn’t going to make it a revelation. I’m still seeing women doing a lot of the work in that movement. I’m seeing women take on this burden of sharing their pain. We need to go farther than that, because the people who are causing this issue to be such a big issue are probably not listening.

I’m conflicted about it, because I think it’s a really great thing to bring to the surface. I think it’s good to talk about it. But I think that conversation needs to be moved to perpetrators. As someone who has been sexually assaulted myself, this movement brings nothing new to the table. Once I was sexually assaulted, it was very clear to me that almost nine out of ten of my friends had also been through something similar. I didn’t need at #MeToo movement to know that. As a woman, oftentimes, in positions of supporting other women, you know. The #MeToo movement seems to be calling out men, generally, who do this — and anyone else who finds themselves in that position — but I feel like it’s not enough.

College sophomore Gillian Pasley, Creative Writing major representative

There’s definitely a lot of unrest in the department right now, just because of the fear about the lack of faculty going forward. I personally did not know Bernard [Matambo], but I know that from a lot of students who either had him as first-years last semester or who have been working with him for many years, it was pretty shocking and and threw a big wrench in the academic year to have [this person] who was once a beloved professor just leave very abruptly. I think there was a lot of confusion surrounding that. At first people were like, ‘Did the school do something to wrong him?’ But then as news started to come out and rumors started to spread, it became more of a talk about sexual harassment on campus and from the faculty at large. And I feel like it makes sense that it came out during this time, because of the #MeToo movement. So I think that probably had an effect, perhaps, on why the person who came forward decided to come forward when they did. So it ended up having implications on our department, but while I think it’s going to be hard to deal with the lack of faculty, I am not upset that this happened because it’s important that the truth come out about these sorts of things.

There was a meeting at the end of last semester where a lot of the concerned majors came to talk about it, just as students. I thought it was very interesting to hear from younger students and older students as well about where they stand on this issue. Obviously, everybody is anti-sexual assault, but it’s interesting to hear student perspectives about … rumors that have been flying on campus. It’s been a good opportunity for the students to come together as students, and as people who have a vested interest in this department, to stand up and say, ‘We’re going to run this, we’re going to have a hand in how it’s going to be going forward,’ because clearly, with some of the faculty who’ve been accused, it’s not only the faculty at this college that can make significant decisions in this respect. So I think that, while it was awful to have that scandal happen in our department last year, it’s going to ultimately be good going forward to get more student involvement in the hiring process and get students interested in shaping the department that they want to see.