The Royal Ontario Museum plans to host a summer exhibit of work by the late Indian photographer Raghubir Singh, who is the subject of a sexual-assault allegation.
The exhibition, entitled Modernism on the Ganges: Raghubir Singh Photographs, is a retrospective of colour street photography by the Indian émigré artist who died in 1999 at the age of 56. It originated with the Metropolitan Museum in New York and when it was shown there last fall it was the subject of a protest and performance by Brooklyn artist Jaishri Abichandani, who alleges Singh repeatedly sexually assaulted her during a trip to India in 1995.
Saying the museum was still assessing the situation, a ROM spokesperson declined to discuss the show other than to confirm in an e-mail that it is "tentatively scheduled to open in the summer." The ROM has yet to list the show on its website, but the Met's website states that it will be in Toronto from July 21 to Oct. 21, 2018.
Meanwhile, internal ROM documents obtained by The Globe and Mail show that staff are hard at work preparing for an event that may pitch the institution head first into the #MeToo controversy at a time when art museums are questioning how they celebrate famed artists who were also notorious misogynists or alleged abusers. If the exhibition goes ahead, the publicly funded institution will have to manage a dialogue about the social issues raised by the art not only with its visitors and the broader community, but also with its own staff and board members.
Contacted by The Globe this week, Abichandani said the ROM had not been in touch with her, but that she was interested in talking to the museum.
"It's not my intention to turn what happened at the Met into an ongoing part of my artistic practice," she said, adding that while she did not expect the ROM to cancel the show, which is also scheduled to open March 3 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, she did think some kind of ancillary programming, such as an exhibition of other South Asian women artists or a public forum, was needed. She also wants to see an acknowledgment of her allegations at the museum.
Abichandani, who met Singh when she was a 25-year-old art-school grad and both were active in the South Asian cultural community in New York, alleges that he assaulted her during a month-long trip to India that she had joined on the understanding that she was travelling as a photographer's assistant. She had agreed to the trip believing this was a professional opportunity to break into the art world and, although she was unpaid, her hotel and airfare were covered by Singh's publisher. (Singh's images of his native India were well known to collectors through the lush coffee-table books he produced from the '70s to the '90s.) Abichandani, who immigrated to the United States as a child, says that without money or friends in India, and before the advent of cellphones, she was at Singh's mercy.
"I was completely financially, socially and geographically isolated," she said. "I was in a completely coercive situation; I just had to survive because my 'no' was not enough for him. I said no every single night until there was nothing left to say." Abichandani alleges Singh raped her multiple times during the trip and continued to pursue and harass her upon their return to New York.
She came out with her allegations when two things coincided last fall: the allegations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein – Abichandani says the modus operandi described by his accusers sounded familiar to her – and the Singh show at the Met Breuer, the Met's modern and contemporary art satellite in New York. She got out a diary that she had written at the time in which she recalled her desperation during the trip, and first made her allegations public on a New York radio station in October and on her own Facebook page. Her Dec. 3 performance outside the museum involved a line of about 30 people carrying red signs that said "ME TOO" and wearing red gags while the artist herself wore a sign saying, "I survived … Raghubir Singh. #MeToo"
Abichandani has discussed her allegations with the Met, which has promised it will hold a forum on the issues she raises, but the artist said she has heard nothing more from the Met, where the show has now closed. The Met's approach stands in contrast to that of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., which surprised the art world last month when it postponed indefinitely two shows by living artists, the photorealist portrait painter Chuck Close and the photographer Thomas Roma, because of allegations of sexual misconduct against both. That institution said it was not an appropriate time to unveil the shows because of the attention currently focused on the artists' private lives.
Meanwhile, at the ROM, an exhibition project brief obtained by The Globe suggests the museum is moving slowly to review the situation but is not considering cancelling or postponing. As recently as last week, a draft version of the plan was being circulated to staff that made no mention of Abichandani's three-month-old allegations and the December protest; a section titled "risk assessment" said there were no risks and only included the positive impact of associating the ROM with the Met. This week, an updated version was given to staff including information about the protest, but it only says that the museum's communications department is working on a plan for communicating to visitors and the wider community about the show.
"We are engaging in serious discussions and reflection internally and with stakeholders outside the museum," the ROM said in its e-mail response, adding the museum would say more about its plans once it had done its "due diligence."
For her part, Abichandani wants to see acknowledgment of her allegations at the museum: "I would like people to encounter the work knowing they are encountering the work of a predator … They owe their visitors this; they owe their employees this."