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Student Accuses New York Academy of Art of Enabling Jeffrey Epstein [UPDATE]

As more details emerge about the late financier and accused sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein’s ties to the New York Academy of Art, the private graduate art school has announced its plans to issue oversight protocols regarding relationships between students and collectors. Maria Farmer, a former student who met Epstein at her graduate thesis show in 1995, reported that Epstein sexually assaulted her and her younger sister, Annie, twenty-three years ago; their reports are the earliest known allegations against Epstein, who was on the board of the school from 1987 to 1994.

Farmer told the New York Times that she was introduced to Epstein by Eileen Guggenheim, the school’s dean of students at the time and its current board chair, and was pressured to sell him and his associate Ghislaine Maxwell a painting. Farmer told Artnet that she was reluctant to do so, as she had already sold the work to a buyer in Germany for $12,000, but felt coerced by Guggenheim, who allegedly told her: “You will be selling to them. . . . They are great benefactors of the academy and you are going to make them happy. Do you understand?” Farmer says Guggenheim also told her to give him a discount. (Guggenheim did not immediately respond to Artforum’s request for comment but told Artnet News and the New York Times that she does not recall the exchange.)

Epstein allegedly told Farmer that if she sold him the work for half price, he would help her with her career. Soon after her graduation in 1995, Farmer says Guggenheim brought her to Epstein’s New Mexico ranch and told her to “act grateful and tell him how wonderful he is.” Upon returning to New York, when she was twenty-five years old, Epstein offered her a job as an art adviser and assistant at his New York townhouse, where she met Donald Trump, among other visitors, and witnessed Maxwell bringing in “nubile” girls for Epstein. 

During one trip that Farmer took to Ohio, where Epstein had an estate, she claims that Epstein and Maxwell groped her. After the incident, Farmer learned that her sister Annie, who was sixteen years old at the time, also had troubling experiences with the couple. On one occasion, they flew her from Arizona to New York, where Annie claims Epstein rubbed and touched her inappropriately. On a separate occasion, they flew Annie out to his ranch in New Mexico for a weekend, where they allegedly massaged and pet the younger Farmer sister and also asked her to massage Epstein. 

Farmer went to the New York Police Department and contacted the Federal Bureau of Investigation to report what had happened. However, the NYPD told her they were limited in their ability to investigate the allegations since they occurred outside of their jurisdiction, and the FBI did not contact Farmer for questioning until 2006, when more allegations against Epstein emerged. She claims that she went to Guggenheim as well but said the dean did not appear to take her account of the events seriously.

The sisters also approached Vanity Fair reporter Vicky Ward, who interviewed them while working on a story on Epstein’s finances—the on-the-record allegations were purportedly cut from the piece by former editor in chief Graydon Carter—and told art collector and New York Academy of Art cofounder Stuart Pivar about the alleged assaults. In an interview with Mother Jones published last week, Pivar claims to have ended his friendship with Epstein after hearing of his sexual misconduct with Farmer. 

In response to Farmer’s allegations, the New York Academy of Art’s president David Kratz released a public statement on the school’s website, which in part reads: “The academy is appalled by this tragic situation. However, allegations that anyone in our administration or board knew of or enabled this horrific abuse are not true. Had we known at the time the seriousness of the situation, we would have urged Maria to report the Ohio assault to law enforcement and done everything we could to support her in seeking justice.” (The letter is published in full below.)

In addition to the academy, a number of other high-profile cultural figures and institutions have found themselves in the spotlight following media reports revealing their connections to Epstein, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab. Its director, Joichi Ito, published an apology on the media lab’s website on August 15 for taking money from Epstein for both the lab and his own venture capital funds. Ito promised to donate the equivalent amount that the lab had accepted from Epstein to charity, but the gesture did not prevent two educators at the lab from stepping down. 

The letter from the New York Academy of Art is as follows: 

Dear Members of the Academy Community,

You may have read recent press reports about what happened to Maria Farmer at the hands of Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell while she was working for Jeffrey Epstein as an art consultant in the 1990s after she graduated from the school. The Academy is appalled by this tragic situation. However, allegations that anyone in our administration or board knew of or enabled this horrific abuse are not true. Had we known at the time the seriousness of the situation, we would have urged Maria to report the Ohio assault to law enforcement and done everything we could to support her in seeking justice.

Jeffrey Epstein was introduced to the Academy through one of its original board members, Stuart Pivar, in the 1980’s. Epstein served as a board member from 1987-1994. Both men left the board in 1994. When Epstein returned to New York after serving his prison sentence in Florida, he purchased tickets to one fundraising event in 2012 and two events in 2014. He also made a donation of $30,000 in 2014. There was no inappropriate contact or behavior during this time period that we know of. However with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight we wish we had barred him from the premises.

The Academy works hard to gain attention and exposure for the incredible work of our talented students. Because of our efforts, many are fortunate enough to graduate with a base of supporters already interested in their work and careers. This attention can make a significant difference in the crucial beginning stages of our students’ careers when they are most in need of encouragement and support. However, we are reviewing this situation and will publish further guidelines, if needed, to assist students for how they can and should interact with art collectors. The Academy takes allegations of sexual harassment or assault very seriously and has a formal investigation process as well as a Title IX officer on staff.

As an institution, our mission is always to create a safe and optimal learning environment in which our artists can explore their artistic interests, grow their abilities, and achieve their creative vision. Though we do not control collector relationships after graduation when our alumni are pursuing careers as independent adults, we strongly urge anyone with any knowledge of inappropriate behavior to report it to the administration and we will take appropriate and immediate action.

Sincerely,

David Kratz

President

[UPDATE]: August 28, 2019

In a statement sent to Artforum, Eileen Guggenheim said: “I have never forced an art sale by an Academy student. I do what many other board members and school administrators do—I often introduce collectors to students and encourage them to sell their work in order to help them establish their careers. This is beneficial to emerging artists. . . . I have never been at Mr. Epstein’s home in Santa Fe and have never encouraged an emerging artist to enter into a personal relationship with a collector to advance their career.”

Her statement, which can be read in full on Artnet, continues:

“Many weeks after her return from Ohio, Ms. Farmer came to see me in New York and mentioned that something untoward had happened in Ohio between her and Mr. Epstein and Ms. Maxwell. I immediately expressed my sympathies. She provided no details to suggest that there had been any physical contact or violation. Had she mentioned the word ‘rape’ to me or described any attempt at physical contact, I would have come to her aid immediately. In no way did I mock or blame her. Finally, it is important to note that in 1996, neither I nor the New York Academy of Art administration had any knowledge of Mr. Epstein’s crimes. Had we known, we would have taken strong action.”

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