Bill Arning had hoped for a comeback this fall with the imminent opening of his new gallery in Houston. Instead, the curator finds himself consulting lawyers about possible legal action against the contemporary art museum he once helmed, losing his headlining exhibition, and defending himself against numerous accusations of sexual misconduct, all of which he denies.
The fallout was sudden and swift, beginning three weeks ago when an Instagram account called @cancelartgalleries posted anonymous claims of sexual misconduct against Arning, including some that date to his tenure as director of the Contemporary Art Museum Houston (CAMH). The incident is perhaps the most prominent example of how a new wave of anonymous social-media accounts are putting accusations of bad behavior in the art world online—which, in turn, is resulting in real-world fallout.
Former Employers Respond
Within the comments on the original Instagram post, two former employers were quick to distance themselves from the curator. That included the museum. “In August of 2018, CAMH was informed of allegations involving Bill Arning. The allegations were thoroughly investigated and resulted in Mr. Arning’s separation from CAMH in October 2018,” the museum wrote. “At that time, no illegal activity was alleged or uncovered.”
Artnet News has investigated details of the CAMH complaint, which, according to sources, involved an employee at the museum alerting officials that Arning, then director of CAMH, had entered a sexual relationship with a young artist included in an exhibition curated by the museum’s teen council. The employee was alarmed after hearing about the alleged sequence of events from a concerned teacher of the young artist. Arning, according to the complaint, also promised the artist a spot in the institution’s Stonewall 50 exhibition. (The show moved forward after Arning’s departure and the artist was not included by the new curator.)
The museum’s investigation found that no laws were violated and the artist was of legal age when they entered into the relationship.
Also distancing herself from Arning in the comments to the recent Instagram post was gallerist Nancy Littlejohn. The former CAMH trustee had contracted Arning for two months of curatorial work after his resignation from the museum. “I was contacted directly by the CAMH to let me know of Bill’s resignation,” she said in an Instagram comment. “Nowhere in the conversation was I led to believe he was forced to resign under unsavory circumstances.” (The museum declined to comment on her statement.)
In an interview with Artnet News, Littlejohn said that she had immediately confronted Arning about the CAMH complaint when it was brought to her attention by members of the Houston art community at the beginning of 2019; she subsequently ended their partnership.
Artnet News was able to determine the identity of the young artist in the teen council exhibition, who did not respond to requests for comment. In a statement, Arning described that sexual misconduct allegation, as well as others that have surfaced online and those disclosed to Artnet News, as “false claims.”
Nine men shared their experiences with Arning with Artnet News on the condition of anonymity, fearing professional consequences and stigma associated with LGBTQ+ victims reporting their stories. These sexual misconduct allegations were corroborated by photographs, videos, text messages, or secondhand accounts from friends. None of the men who spoke with Artnet was underage during the alleged incidents and none filed formal complaints with law enforcement at the time.
There was the magazine editor who asked if Arning would help with an upcoming book. He claims the curator rubbed his leg under the table and said, “Many artists I help give me sex in exchange for favors, so what are you going to give me in exchange for this?”
Arning’s alleged behavior continued over the phone, where he sent several nude pictures with the message, “Hope to see you before you leave.”
And there was the zine creator who, after meeting Arning just once, says he received a half-naked selfie with an artwork hanging in the background reading: “My other hobby is sex.”
Several of the men interviewed also received videos in which Arning appeared nude, wishing them happy birthdays and saying that he hoped to see them again soon.
The allegations span the past two decades of Arning’s career, including his time as a curator of MIT’s List Visual Arts Center in the 2000s. During this period, he would often invite people to tour his art collection inside his home, according to sources. One artist told Artnet News that when he took the tour, it ended in Arning’s bedroom. The artist claims Arning threw him on the bed and forcibly kissed him before he could break free of the encounter. “He directly told me that everybody thinks he is so powerful, which is why nobody says anything,” the artist asserted.
(MIT did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the circumstances of Arning’s departure or if any misconduct claims were filed against him while he was a curator there. Arning said he left MIT to become a museum director.)
Similar allegations occurred in 2009 when Arning had just begun his tenure at CAMH. A local artist claims the curator invited him to dinner and then to his home to view his art collection, where Arning made a move on him. He expressed resistance, but ultimately gave in, the artist alleges, feeling manipulated afterward.
A third artist recounted a studio visit with Arning that he says turned hostile. Ending a 2015 meeting, Arning allegedly grabbed the artist’s crotch and forcibly kissed him. During a gallery visit with the same artist that year, Arning allegedly closed the door and locked it behind him. “It felt like he was almost chasing me around the gallery,” the artist said. “I kept pushing him off me.”
And during a private tour of a graduate student’s exhibition in 2019, Arning allegedly turned the conversation to his sexual experiences. “He started talking about masturbation and having sex with one of his employees while he was director of CAMH,” the graduate student recently claimed. “I felt really uncomfortable.”
In a statement, Arning declined to address each allegation specifically, categorizing them altogether as “either completely false or so distorted and out of context that I cannot identify the situation where such events occurred.”
“Regardless, what’s important is that, if I have ever made anyone feel uncomfortable by my words or actions, it was never my intent,” he continued. “I believe the motivation behind these false claims was triggered by the announcement of the opening of my new gallery, as I have been a private individual for the last two years since resigning from my last employer. I am deeply disappointed by the manner in which these statements are being made, particularly at a time when we as an art community need support more than ever.”
There are signs that the effects of the controversy are just beginning to take hold. Arning still intends to open his gallery next week, on October 7, but the inaugural exhibition of Israeli artist Roey Victoria Heifetz has been delayed until later in 2021, replaced by a group show called “Plans for the Fall,” whose participants have not been disclosed. Arning said he and Heifetz decided together to delay her show “to allow her art to be seen better.”
Recently, the Art League Houston asked Arning to remove a Facebook fundraiser he started to benefit the organization and announced plans to donate any funds received to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. Arning declined to comment on the organization’s decision.
The CAMH’s unusual move to publicly disavow its former director may also have consequences for the institution’s future. A source close to the situation tells Artnet News that Arning is considering legal action against the museum for a possible violation of his severance agreement. (Arning said he couldn’t discuss the matter and referred Artnet to his attorneys at the law firm Munsch Hardt Kopf & Harr, PC, who also declined to comment.)
In an interview, Hesse McGraw, the museum’s current director, declined to discuss the severance agreement’s terms; however, he categorized Arning’s alleged behavior, if true, as “a violation of trust between the museum and our community.” McGraw also said that the museum had reported the new allegations spread on social media to the Houston Police Department. The Houston Police Department declined to discuss details of the matter with Artnet News.
“This is a catalytic moment in the museum’s history,” McGraw added. “We are committed to our artist community and also the healing that may be necessary amongst our community.”