The Asheville Survivors Coalition has brought the national “Me Too” movement to the local level. In fact, the grassroots group, whose members have chosen to remain anonymous or use pseudonyms for their own protection, says the organization predates actress Alyssa Milano’s popularization of the movement last year. “The seeds of it came during the Waking Life [Espresso] situation,” says member Eva Hesse (not her real name).
In September 2015, Waking Life owners Jared Rutledge and Jacob Owens were exposed for operating a blog, Twitter account and podcast celebrating their sexual exploits. “A group of people came together during that, as kind of a similar ad hoc community grouping,” Hesse recalls. The West Asheville business closed the next month in the aftermath of public outcry following the revelations.
Since then, says Hesse, “There has been a loose network of people working on this issue.” Those activists heard about “instances of people abusing their power in this local community.” Over time, realization set in that “the work was going to be long-term,” Hesse says.
Blast from the past
In recent months, the coalition’s focus has been on building greater awareness of community members’ complaints about local artist Jonas Gerard. In addition to its online activity, the organization has held public demonstrations, calling Gerard a “repeat offender” against female employees.
The coalition’s website includes four anonymous accounts of alleged inappropriate behavior by Gerard. Posts on the website have generated extensive discussion on local Facebook pages including Asheville Politics and WAX-West Asheville Exchange, with some posts generating hundreds of comments. Those weighing in expressed positions ranging from support for Gerard to vehement condemnation of his alleged actions.
Allen Brasington, Gerard’s community outreach coordinator, disputes the relevancy of the coalition’s claims. He also questions the tactics used by the anonymous group. “When you’re battling a sniper — these people coming out of nowhere — there’s no way to communicate with them,” he says. He believes those involved with the Survivors Coalition have remained anonymous to avoid defamation lawsuits. “Or they’re breaking a mutual confidentiality agreement,” he continues. “Maybe these people are using fake guises because they’re bound by confidentiality agreements already and they’re grinding a really old ax.”
But how old are those claims? And what does that time lag mean in the context of an issue that is now front and center in the public’s awareness?
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission enforces federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination, including sexual harassment. By law, all such complaints are confidential, though the agency does notify the employer in question. Brasington says that three EEOC complaints were filed against Gerard in 2014 and 2015.
One of those complaints, Brasington says, was filed alongside a criminal charge of misdemeanor sexual battery. Court records show an offense date of Aug. 22, 2015. The prosecuting witness voluntarily withdrew the matter on Jan. 8, 2016, which was also listed as the trial date. According to the record, the two parties reached what’s noted as a “civil agreement.” Staff in the office of the Buncombe County Clerk of Court say no further information about the nature of the agreement is available.
In response to protests carried out by the Survivors Coalition, Gerard released a personal statement on Dec. 20, 2017. In it, he acknowledged the EEOC complaints, along with the criminal charge. The artist went on to write that he would “like to take this opportunity to tell you I am 76 years old and I admit that there are things I have said and done in past years that I’m not proud of today. For those things, I wish to share my most sincere apology to anyone hurt by my actions. Mistakes were made several years ago, lessons were learned and since that time I have been singularly focused on becoming a better person.”
Gerard’s statement also addressed the accusations of sexual assault, noting, “The criminal charge, which seems to resurface from time to time, was dropped over two years ago. Please know I have never (repeat, never) assaulted anyone. I am not a violent person. I am an expressive person. I value peace.”
“There was some education that took place when we had this group of suits that happened together,” says Brasington. He notes that Gerard completed a 40-hour online workshop on sexual harassment, along with therapy. “Not an excuse at all, but an explanation [for] a man of [Gerard’s] age, of his era,” Brasington says.
The coalition’s recent activities have prompted conversations within the local arts community about the broader issue of sexual misconduct in the workplace. Lauren Patton, who owns ZaPow Gallery, believes open discussion is long overdue and a key to eliminating such behavior. “I think it is really important that we step forward and say, ‘This is an important issue,’” she explains. “We need to stop pretending this isn’t happening.”
Stefanie Gerber Darr, executive director of the Asheville Area Arts Council, agrees. “If you don’t move the conversation forward, nothing is ever going to change,” she says. “But the question is how and who [gets it started]? Because it is a touchy subject, and it can get really heated.”
For local tattoo artist Kitty Love, the answer lies with the young. The 50-year-old former Arts Council director says she grew up in a “rough-and-tumble environment” in which inappropriate sexual behavior by certain men “was just kind of par for the course.” But the “Me Too” movement and discussions with her 21-year-old daughter surrounding it have radically changed her understanding of sexual misconduct, she says. “For me, a big part of it is understanding the elements as they are being told to me by what I feel; in large part, [it] is a younger generation that is basically standing up and saying it’s time for a cultural change.”
Noël Yovovich, a recent arrival to Asheville and the River Arts District who does fine jewelry and other metalwork, echoes Love’s observation. “Both men and women in my generation,” says the 67-year-old, “were brought up with certain expectations, including male dominance and not only women’s submission, but concern in preventing damage to the fragile male ego at almost any cost.” Yovovich believes ongoing conversation is essential to maintaining the movement’s current momentum. But ultimately, she says, “It’s a process of the older people dying off and the younger ones taking over.”
In the meantime, however, there is reason to believe that the topic remains taboo, at least locally.
Xpress reached out to more than 35 artists and building owners in the RAD seeking comment on sexual misconduct and the community’s response to it. Fourteen declined to weigh in; only four agreed to go on the record. The rest did not respond.
Chalkley Matlack, president of the River Arts District Artists, declined to be interviewed for this article. In consultation with the organization’s board of directors, Matlack released the following statement, which he said would be provided in response to any future media inquiries on workplace sexual conduct in the arts community:
The River Arts District Artists is a membership organization established to promote the common interests and well-being of its 220+ artist members. Our organization is dedicated to diversity, innovation and positive expression to promote our individual creative businesses. We aspire to be a safe space free of discrimination, harassment, abuse or other factors that do not contribute to a healthy environment. For our bylaws see our RADA website, riverartsdistrict.com.”
Even as community members engage in online discussions about the broader question of how best to address sexual misconduct, the Survivors Coalition has been calling on some local organizations and businesses to remove Gerard’s works from their premises. To Patton, this seems like a no-brainer. With so many artists in the area, the South Slope gallery owner argues, institutions have plenty of other options. Those without a history of alleged sexual misconduct, she continues, should top the list. “It’s a pretty low bar,” she says.
The coalition’s urgings haven’t fallen on deaf ears. CarePartners recently decided to remove Gerard’s artwork from its building. Tracy Buchanan, the nonprofit’s president and CEO, wrote: “While we cannot know and will not cast an opinion regarding recent accusations, we do believe that in order to continue to provide a comfortable and welcoming environment for everyone — free from distraction and focused on care and healing — we needed to remove the artwork.”
But in other places, such as the Asheville Regional Airport, the artist’s work remains on prominent display. In an email exchange, Tina Kinsey, the airport’s marketing and public relations director, noted that Gerard pays to have his work displayed there. “With the absence of legal convictions related to the allegations, we are not considering any action at this time,” she wrote.
The Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, meanwhile, has opted for a middle path: removing some, but not all, of Gerard’s works from its walls. “Even though there have been no convictions, there is enough concern from some of my members that we’ve decided we’re going to rotate out some of Jonas’ loaned works in an effort to provide other artists and businesses an opportunity for exposure in the visitor center,” says Kit Cramer, the nonprofit’s president and CEO. Works previously donated by the artist, however, will remain on display.
Behind the masks
In December, eight masked demonstrators gathered outside Gerard’s Clingman Avenue studio. Identifying themselves as Survivors Coalition members, the protesters carried a banner that read “Multiple Women Harassed or Assaulted by Jonas Gerard.”
Brasington says Gerard and his staff don’t know what the organization wants. “I’d love to ask coalition members, but unfortunately we’re not able to speak to them directly because they’re wearing masks,” he says.
According to Hesse, what the group wants is accountability. Members, she maintains, are willing to remove their masks and meet with Gerard and his representatives at a public press conference. Meanwhile, Gerard’s publicist, Ann Sharpsteen, has expressed a willingness to have Gerard and his team meet with group members, but not in the context of a press conference. “I do think every woman’s story is valid and should be heard,” she says. “I wish there was a way to remove the mask, come together and actually talk.” To date, neither party has agreed to the other’s terms.
Distrust remains strong on both sides. The Survivors Coalition says it fears retaliation; Gerard’s team maintains that such concern is baseless, and both Brasington and Sharpsteen have voiced fears about their own safety, citing the Jan. 18 vandalism of Gerard’s van and billboard as evidence of an escalating conflict. A Jan. 20 police report concerning the incidents has since been closed, noting that all leads had been exhausted.
In an email responding to a request for comment, Hesse said the coalition had had no role in the “creative alterations to Gerard’s vehicle or billboard. Perhaps someone is trying to speak to him in his own language? Paint splatters are harmless, but sexual violence hurts us all. ASC wishes to focus on the actions of Jonas Gerard and the goal of keeping the community safe.”
Breaking the ice
Despite the current impasse, Gerber Darr of the Arts Council sees reason for hope. “We’re still at the beginning of the ‘Me Too’ movement,” she points out. “It would be great to see a huge change overnight, but I don’t think it’s possible. I think it’s going to take a lot more time to figure it all out. … I think this is a great way to start — having articles and one-on-one or group conversations — but I don’t think there is going to be a big change until there is a larger conversation about it.”
RAD artist William Henry Price echoes Gerber Darr’s observation. “At the moment it’s just awkward,” he says. “But I don’t think it will prevent the conversation. … I see this as the ice breaking off of the river: This is a thaw. I think it’s very good.”
And for Kitty Love, there’s no turning back. “The gauntlet has been thrown,” she declares, adding, “Where do you stand on this issue?”