Artist and art world-rich-person Tom Sachs has made headlines in the last month for a series of allegations surrounding his demanding requirements — and mistreatment — of employees. Sources have shared their stories anonymously and Sachs’s studio has denied most of the claims, but the allegations have nonetheless prompted multiple articles, including a Curbed exposé this week, and set social media ablaze.
The saga began February 16, when writer and curator Emily Colucci wrote a post on her website Filthy Dreams titled, “I Found It: The Worst Art Job Listing Ever Created.” The article outlined a job posting in which a “high profile art world family” sought a full-time executive and personal assistant “dedicated to a simple goal: make life easier for the couple in every way possible.” The job required the candidate to be on call outside of normal work hours and laid out a long list of ridiculous tasks, including picking up clothing from “high end stores,” serving as the point person for the couple’s fleet of household staff, and managing “dog systems” and “closet systems.” Commenters on Filthy Dreams speculated the employers were Sachs and his wife, former Gagosian Gallery director Sarah Hoover, a hypothesis later also reported by Artnet. On February 27, the New York Times picked up the story, and things spiraled from there.
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The collective fascination with the story of Sachs’s studio culture reveals a morbid curiosity surrounding abuse — particularly when it occurs in an industry whose public image is largely one of wealth and glamour — and a worrying normalization of such behavior. On Curbed’s Instagram post publicizing the story, comments range from making fun of Sachs to making fun of his workers to offering half-baked defenses of the artist in the spirit of hustle culture. Many of the comments also reference external impressions and stereotypes of the art world’s toxicity and allude to the systemic issues that allow it to continue.
Allegations reported by Curbed, many of them echoed by former workers Hyperallergic spoke to, include Sachs’s strict rules mandating that studio workers observe various bizarre manners, such as walking quietly, placing items at parallel and 90-degree angles, and adhering to a strict dietary and exercise routine which involved group workouts while wearing uniforms; but also his throwing things at or near his employees: a sheet of steel, a piece of wood, a typewriter, clipboards, a ladder.
As with the sources who spoke to Curbed, the workers Hyperallergic interviewed requested anonymity, citing nondisclosure agreements and a fear of retaliation. While the accusations against Sachs are alarming, individuals’ fear of going on record about this type of abuse — even when they are no longer employed by Sachs — is also disturbing and suggests more pervasive issues across the cultural sphere. (If you have a story about unfair or abusive treatment in the art world, you can reach out to [email protected].)
In its headline, the Curbed article half-jokes that Sachs “promised a fun cult,” but a former employee told Hyperallergic that this concept was not what drew workers to the space — they were seeking a genuine professional opportunity. Another said they didn’t know anything about Sachs when they started the job and were just hopeful it could help them become an artist. “Now that I’ve worked in art for longer I know that’s not true, but he chooses young people who think that’s true,” the past employee said.
“We wanted a job in the arts for someone we admired to some degree. Some people were bigger fans of his art than others,” the other worker said. “But no one signed up for that.” While the former employee mentioned Sachs’s hoards of super-fans (mostly young White men), they said the people actually running the studio did not fall into this category. Some employees had worked there for as long as 10 or 12 years, they added, but Sachs had managed to create a culture of fear and silence.
“I think that happened because you do become indoctrinated and you start to believe the abuse that Tom is doing is normal and is how a normal studio should run,” they said. “And then those people start to perpetuate that abuse.” Inter-worker communication about Sachs’s behavior, they added, was difficult.
“You definitely couldn’t bring anything up,” the former employee said. “And the longer you stayed, the more you felt like that was a normal work environment.”
The other past worker told Hyperallergic about how difficult it was to quit.
“It is like a true cult in that they make it really hard to leave,” they said, citing “manipulation and threats.”
“They would tell you things like, ‘You wouldn’t get any kind of letter of reference, Tom would never mention your name again, all the work you’ve done here would be for nothing, no-one would remember you, and everyone would everyone would speak badly of you,” the worker said. They added that Sachs repeatedly spoke negatively of his past workers.
In his art practice, Sachs sometimes conveys a fixation on space travel, as exhibited in his 14-year-old project Space Program, a series of interactive large-scale installations in which he portrays astronauts and rockets. The past worker told Hyperallergic that he brought this obsession (or perhaps performative aesthetic) into his real-life studio, too, claiming that Sachs told employees they needed to be physically fit in order to travel to space.
“He didn’t call any of his performances ‘performances,’ and we weren’t allowed to call them performances. We had to call them demonstrations, and you had to believe what he believed, which is that you were actually going to space,” said the ex-employee. “If you used the wrong language, that was punishable because it proved you weren’t fully indoctrinated in the way of thinking that the studio operated on.”
An employee who broke a rule would have to give money to a piggy bank, but the former worker said punishment also entailed verbal harassment. Curbed lists Sachs’s strange and specific personal needs — such as requiring a dish of “rabbit, sweet potato, julienned spinach, cranberry powder, aloe vera juice, and coconut oil” for his dog to be prepared three times a day — and relates instances of verbal abuse and name calling.
“You didn’t know what he was going to do with that pent-up rage,” the former employee told Hyperallergic. “Whether he was going to kick something or throw something, and I definitely felt afraid.”
“Everybody knows his footprints there,” another former worker told Hyperallergic of the workers in the basement studio. “To prepare for him coming down the stairs.”
Other stories center Sachs’s alleged inappropriate sexual behaviors: It is said that he watched porn in the studio, talked about his sexual preferences, wore tight underwear around the workplace, and made a female employee feel unsafe while alone with him.
“He treated the men so much differently. The men had to the potential to be his protégés,” the past employee told Hyperallergic. “He didn’t view the women that way.” Sachs also allegedly called a basement storage room the “rape room” (he later renamed it the “consent room,” and Curbed reported that his studio said the names were meant as a joke). The other past employee told Hyperallergic that Sachs displayed a box displaying and labeled “asbestos” and containers labeled “formaldehyde.” They said they never saw the artist actually use either material in a project.
Sachs has become known for stunts that could be most favorably interpreted as provocative (for example, the Jewish artist has repeatedly depicted swastikas in his artworks and even displayed one in his studio’s lunchroom. But even prior to the outpouring of revelations in recent weeks, Sachs himself has never shied away from describing his studio environment as cult-like, a characterization largely shrugged off as one more aspect of his eccentric art practice. In a 2022 New York Times piece by Andrew Russeth that lauded his art practice as indicative of “what people can accomplish when they come together,” the artist is eerily quoted as saying: “A cult just means — when you look it up — it just means a group of people with idiosyncratic and shared values … Everyone’s welcome to leave whenever they want.” Sachs even publicly outlined his outlandish requirements for employees in a 2010 film titled Ten Bullets, and he also provided his workers with a more detailed manual, according to Curbed.
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Neither Sachs’s studio nor his New York galleries Acquavella and Sperone Westwater, nor Nike, with whom the artist has a longstanding partnership, have responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment. A spokesperson for the artist told Curbed that “Tom Sachs Studio believes all employees should feel safe and secure in the workplace and is committed to upholding these values.”
But the former employee told Hyperallergic that “Tom was dead serious about everything that came out of his mouth, and everything he wrote,” such as the employee manual. They added that calling the “rape room” a joke offers Sachs an easy out. “It didn’t feel like a joke to the employees, all of that felt really real,” they said.
“Similar to the swastika in the lunchroom, they were ways for him to exert his power in the studio because you weren’t allowed to have an opinion of it that was against,” they continued. “You weren’t allowed to say, ‘this makes me uncomfortable’ because then you weren’t part of the gang, easygoing, part of the studio. You just had to pretend it didn’t bother you.” Curbed also described a a system of favoritism in which Sachs gave his preferred employees expensive gifts and consistently reminded his workers they were replaceable.
On social media, comments on Curbed’s piece reveal just how familiar Sachs’s alleged behavior was to readers both outside but especially inside the art world. Despite the peculiarities of the artist’s studio environment, the story reminded people of their own encounters with cultural figures whose public facade belies a psychologically manipulative personality and exploitative tendencies.
Artist Bobby Aiosa weighed in with a damning condemnation of how big-name artists treat others. “Successful artists can be complete ass-hats that treat studio staff as disposable labor,” Aiosa wrote. “The lack of humanity is disgusting.”