2017-11-08 11:38:03
Director of International Art Fair Accused of Sexual Harassment

In August 2016, more than 20 women gathered in the conference room at Artnet — the leading art-market information company — to discuss complaints about sexual harassment and the treatment of women in the office. As the director of human resources and other Artnet executives listened, women zeroed in on Benjamin Genocchio, a prominent and influential figure in the art world, who had recently stepped down as editor of Artnet News to become director of the Armory Show, a top international art fair.

One of them was Colleen Calvo, the marketing coordinator at the time, who began crying as she talked about encounters with Mr. Genocchio that she said had haunted her for months.

Ms. Calvo recounted those experiences in a recent interview. At Artnet’s 2014 holiday party at the Gramercy Park Hotel, as she was helping check in guests at the door, Mr. Genocchio ran his hand up her sequin pants, she said.

“Ben said, ‘Is this the only time I get to touch your ass without getting yelled at?’” Ms. Calvo recalled.

“He was predatory,” she added. “He was a bully.”

Five women have told The New York Times that they experienced unwelcome touching by Mr. Genocchio in recent years, and a total of eight said he made sexually inappropriate comments to them. An additional 11 people said they observed or knew about Mr. Genocchio making these comments, often in the workplace. Those accusations come in the wake of sexual assault allegations against the movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, as well as sexual harassment accusations against Knight Landesman, a longtime publisher of Artforum magazine.

Mr. Genocchio is not as well known as Mr. Weinstein and the complaints against him typically involve misconduct that is described as more verbal than physical. But in the tight-knit and clubby art world, Mr. Genocchio’s contacts give him outsize power in the business. The Armory Show connects him with art professionals from all over the world. And he is accused of behaving in ways that many women experience or witness in the workplace — casual forms of sexual harassment that rarely make headlines but are insidious because of their pervasiveness, which generally goes unchecked.

Given several days to respond to the accusations, Mr. Genocchio ultimately declined to be interviewed, instead issuing this statement: “Launching start-up news websites definitely led to conflicts with a few employees, but I never intentionally acted in an inappropriate manner nor spoke to or touched a colleague in a sexually inappropriate way. To the extent my behavior was perceived as disrespectful, I deeply and sincerely apologize and will ensure it does not happen again.”

One recent complaint against Mr. Genocchio is laid out in an April 17 memo to Michelle Anastassatos, vice president for human resources at Vornado Realty Trust, which owns the Armory Show. In the memo, which was obtained by The New York Times, Deborah Harris, the Armory Show’s managing director, reports being “berated and humiliated” by Mr. Genocchio after chastising him for “frisky’ behavior” that included, she said, making “lewd comments about the bodies and dress” of young female staffers. (Ms. Harris declined to be interviewed.)

Amanda Coulson, the artistic director of the Volta art fair, an affiliate of the Armory Show, confirmed that one of her female employees asked to work elsewhere because of Mr. Genocchio’s behavior. “She did not want to work in the office because she felt the environment was hostile,” Ms. Coulson recalled. “So I immediately moved her out and got her another office.”

Several people who worked at the Armory described being present when Mr. Genocchio said he couldn’t have an employee in her 50s accompany him to a sponsorship event at a fashion house because he needed instead to bring “some arm candy.”

Vornado Realty Trust in May acknowledged in a letter to Ms. Harris that Mr. Genocchio had “referred to another female employee as arm candy and previously referred to others as sweetie.”

“However,” the letter continued, “multiple employees indicated that as soon as they told him that his comments were objectionable, he stopped making them, he was apologetic, and that no further comments have been made.” (Vornado, in the same letter, informed Ms. Harris that her job was being eliminated and suggested that “a skeptic might even think that the timing of your complaint to human resources was a strategic attempt by you to try to prevent the termination from occurring.”)

Vornado Realty Trust, in a statement, said that its outside counsel last spring conducted an investigation into the allegations contained in Ms. Harris’s memo and “found that while Mr. Genocchio on occasion made inappropriate comments, his conduct did not rise to the level of sexual harassment.”

“Vornado addressed the matter with Mr. Genocchio, and there have been no further reported instances of unacceptable behavior,” the statement continued. “We have only now become aware of the allegations relative to Mr. Genocchio’s conduct at his prior employer.”

Mr. Genocchio, who has a doctorate in art history, started his career as an art critic for The Australian, moving to New York in 2001, where he wrote about art for The New York Times. He is married to Melissa Chiu, the director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, making them something of a power couple in the art world. (In 2015, Mr. Genocchio was called out for having scrubbed his wife’s Wikipedia entry of any Hirshhorn-related controversy.)

Before Artnet, Mr. Genocchio served as editorial director of Louise Blouin Media from 2010 to 2014. Orit Gat, the former senior editor of one of the company’s publications, Modern Painters, said, “He was incredibly aggressive; he would always touch women.”

“One time, he cornered me in the kitchen,” she added. “If I was at my desk, he would put his hands on my shoulders. He would tell me I should have married better, someone who made more money.”

Shane Ferro, who worked at Blouin’s Artinfo, said that Mr. Genocchio “loved to put his hands on my neck.”

“After the second time, I said, ‘I’m staying away from him. I never want to be alone in a room with him,’” Ms. Ferro added. “But he was the editorial director. He had a lot of power over whether I ever got promoted.”

“It was my first-ever job and the sexual harassment started immediately,” she said. “I’ve always been afraid of male bosses since then because of these small but important things that happened when I was 22.”

In an interview, Ms. Blouin said she was unaware of such behavior.

At Artnet, Jacob Pabst, the chief executive, said that the 2016 women’s meeting “was called to provide an open and comfortable forum for our women employees to discuss ways in which Artnet could further improve the work environment.”

But several women interviewed, who insisted on anonymity for fear of jeopardizing their current positions, said that nothing ever came of the meeting or earlier objections to Mr. Genocchio’s behavior, which included complaints that he gave women unwanted massages at their desks, commented on the size of women’s breasts and, in one case, ran his hand up a female employee’s leg in the elevator after asking if she was wearing tights.

A number of women reported their negative experiences with Mr. Genocchio to Susannah Wilson, who was then Artnet’s director of strategy. Ms. Wilson discussed these complaints with Mr. Pabst — the son of Artnet’s founder, Hans Neuendorf — in a 2015 memo obtained by The Times.

“You are aware of the issues around sexual harassment that have come up, specifically around Ben G, so I will not go into detail,” Ms. Wilson wrote to Mr. Pabst. “I have come to you several times not on my own behalf but because so many other people feel too afraid to speak up.”

Artnet should “have a very low tolerance for these offenses,” Ms. Wilson added in the memo. “Just because the cause of most of these problems is isolated to one individual does not mean that the effects are isolatable. The true effect is closer to dropping poison into a glass of water than to dropping a pebble in.”

In an interview, Mr. Pabst said he could not discuss the specifics of Mr. Genocchio’s tenure. “I have to treat certain types of information as confidential — this is his personal stuff,” he said.

“We have clear processes here at Artnet,” he added. “I can assure you, whenever there has been any issue, it has been dealt with.”

Ms. Calvo said she and her female superior complained to Mr. Pabst but that, when she was about halfway through her remarks, Mr. Pabst interrupted her by saying, “‘I’ve heard enough.’” (Mr. Pabst did not respond to a query about this.)

Many in the company said they felt that Mr. Pabst did not take the complaints more seriously because he was friendly with Mr. Genocchio, with whom he played tennis. “I know you deny your closeness to people like Ben,” Ms. Wilson, the former director of strategy, wrote in her memo to Mr. Pabst. But “the perception is that there is a ‘boys club’ and there are factors that reinforce this perception, no matter how long it has been since you played tennis together.”

In the interview with The Times, Mr. Pabst denied that he and Mr. Genocchio were friends and that he wasn’t responsive to complaints.

“It’s absolutely not true that people came to my office and I didn’t respond,” he said. “In terms of Ben Genocchio, I wasn’t aware of any serious claims by any employees.”

“I would never treat anyone better than anyone else,” he said.

But others say Mr. Genocchio’s special status was obvious to everyone in the office.

“Ben got away with it,” Ms. Calvo said. “The company got away with it.”