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Opinion: Froelick controversy spirals downward

In a gallerist's anti-vaxx crusade and shaming of a Jewish museum, Jennifer Rabin writes, the systems of power reinforce themselves.

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Last month, I wrote an article about Portland gallerist Charles Froelick’s decision to pull his artists out of a charity art auction, without their consent, in response to the organization’s Covid vaccination policy. Since then, more information has come to light about Froelick’s conduct and the harm he has caused both the arts community and the Jewish community.

Froelick Gallery, from the street.

As a member of both, I won’t pretend that this isn’t a personal matter for me. And as missiles rain down over the part of the world from which my ancestors hail—all in the name of “de-Nazifying” a peaceful country with a Jewish president—I have become even more resolved in my commitment to call out misinformation and acts of antisemitism, which are, unfortunately, threads that run through the developments of this situation. But let’s back up a few weeks:

Since the last article came out, six of Froelick’s artists—Katherine Ace, Matthew Dennison, Gabriel Liston, Stephen O’Donnell, Michael Schultheis, and Susan Seubert—as well as both of his staff members have resigned. In addition, Ace, who “felt that [Froelick] had been very unclear” about the circumstances around his pulling her work from the art auction, made sure that her work would be included, joining the seven other artists who decided to donate independently.

No one I spoke to mentioned having problems with Froelick deciding not to be vaccinated or even his desire to personally sit out the auction. The issue relates to the matter of professional trust, between Froelick and his artists as well as between Froelick and the Cascade AIDS Project (CAP). A gallerist who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity and who has been affiliated with CAP for many years said, “You cannot make that decision as a gallery owner for your artists without consulting them. It’s unfair and it’s not professional. I don’t have the right to withdraw artists. The artists own that art.” Jordan Schnitzer, the civic and cultural philanthropist who has collected from Froelick Gallery over the years, said, “I’m extremely disturbed by [Froelick’s] actions regarding the CAP auction. CAP is an incredible and important organization in the community that stands up for people’s rights.”

But it wasn’t just Froelick’s handling of the CAP auction that was the reason for people’s departure. For months, members of the arts community had been watching, aghast, as Froelick not only tweeted, retweeted, and liked right-wing anti-mask and anti-vaxx content, but also a slew of content that members and leaders of the Jewish community have called out as antisemitic. Like all U.S. citizens, Froelick has a First Amendment right to speak his mind, no matter how controversial his statements may be. But that he chose as the avatar for his controversial beliefs a detail from the painting Crow and the Creator, by the late Rick Bartow—an artist whose trust Froelick Gallery represents—is an additional violation of trust between gallerist and artist. I reached out to a trustee of the Bartow trust for comment, but received no response by publication time.

In addition to liking tweets that compare vaccine mandates to the Holocaust, Froelick showed repeated support on social media for people who were attacking the Illinois Holocaust Museum for requiring proof of vaccination. When someone I spoke with asked him why he had chosen to condemn a Holocaust museum for its vaccine policy and not, for example, the Museum of Modern Art or the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the exact same policy, he told them it was because the Holocaust museum was the first to put the mandate in place. In fact, vaccine mandates for the New York City museums and cultural institutions went into effect on Sept 13th, 2021. The Illinois Holocaust Museum announced its policy on December 30th, 2021. 

When the din around Froelick’s tweets became louder and when his staff and artists began to resign and his livelihood was impacted, he did two things. First, he deleted his Twitter feed (parts of which have been screenshotted by members of the arts community and compiled here). Second, he reached out to the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education (OJMCHE) to ask for a meeting. It is a common strategy for people in positions of visibility and power to seek quick absolution from the leaders of the community that they have harmed so that they can move on with their lives and protect their business interests. 

The difference between a performative apology and a transformative one is that the latter involves reconciliation, repair, and an understanding of the damage that has been caused. This cannot be solved by a quick phone call to a Jewish museum or a visit to a rabbi. In the Jewish tradition, you can only seek forgiveness from those you have directly harmed. Unlike in other faith traditions, forgiveness or absolution cannot be granted by a third party. Also, it can’t happen overnight. And it certainly cannot be accomplished when the person who has caused harm continues to immerse themselves in the social or political circles that spew hateful ideology.

Froelick’s personal partner posted the following on Twitter (from an account that is also now deleted) in response to OJMCHE’s vaccination policy:

On International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the director of OJMCHE made reference to this tweet in an email which read, in part:

“I was informed that someone tweeted a photograph of the front doors of the museum, with our ‘Vaccination Required for Entry’ sign, alongside a photograph of a sign in German that translates, ‘Jews Are Unwanted Here.’ I have to remark that this abuse is precisely the subject of yesterday’s program [about the misuse and politicization of Holocaust memory].” 

Schnitzer, whose family is one of OJMCHE’s largest supporters in the community and who had seen the email, told me, “It broke my heart to read that from Judy Margles, the director, about when she saw the words ‘Jews not welcome here.’”

I spoke to Amanda Coven, the Director of Education for OJMCHE, to ask her to put into perspective the rise in antisemitic and ahistorical comparisons between Covid public health policy and the Holocaust. She said, “This is people weaponizing the history of the Holocaust to draw attention to an issue that they perceive as unfair.” She explained that some people make the false equivalency between vaccine mandates and genocide even when they know it’s inappropriate because they believe it will draw attention to their cause. Others do so because they are uneducated and don’t know better. Either way, she says, “It’s important to explain why the comparison is misinformed: Jews during the Holocaust did not have a choice about how to identify. Their identities were chosen for them. If someone is choosing to be unvaccinated, they are exercising a choice. That is what makes the comparison offensive and harmful.”

As this story has unfolded, it’s been interesting to witness some people’s inclination to take issue with the effects of this situation instead of its cause, like blaming the ripples on the water for disturbing the calm of the lake instead of the person who threw the rock into it. Some people criticize Froelick’s artists for speaking out. Others claim that I’ve stirred things up by writing about what happened. 

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Yet all of these decisions were made in plain view: Froelick withdrew nine of his artists from the CAP auction without their consent—and without notifying his staff, who had arranged the donations—in a way that threw the auction process into turmoil. He shared antisemitic content on Twitter. He used an image painted by one of his artists as an avatar for his own controversial beliefs. He publicly testified to the Oregon Health Authority that masks are not effective at containing the spread of a virus and that wearing them reduces life expectancy. No one who writes about him, who works for him, who is represented by him, or who screen-captured his social media feed caused any of those things to happen. In the coming days and weeks, watch for any efforts at misdirection. And pay attention to who is being vilified for what is unfolding.

Pay equal attention to those who do and say nothing at all. Portland gives a lot of lip service to diversity, equity, and inclusion, but here is an equity matter happening in real time that none of the blue-chip galleries are publicly speaking up about. I spoke with someone who works at one of those galleries who told me, “I wouldn’t say that [the other blue-chip gallery owners] are protecting Charles, but they are all wanting to hunker down so that it all goes away.” They went on, “It’s like that saying, ‘Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.’ Well, the Portland art world just got punched in the face. What are they gonna do now? I think a lot of them are thinking this is a phase—that it will all blow over.”

Following the murder of George Floyd, I remember the silence of so many of my favorite art institutions. Weeks passed. Eventually, pallid statements in support of Black Lives Matter began to appear in my inbox, used as intros for press releases announcing an upcoming show or new bit of programming. That’s when I realized that—under the current system—the more powerful the arts organization, the slower and more lumbering it will be, and the less it has in common with the art it represents, which will always be inherently soul-searching, boundary-pushing, risk-taking, and revolutionary. The current power structures aren’t built like that. They are designed to reinforce the status quo.

Instead of giving more power to the arts organizations that wait for things to blow over, shouldn’t we elevate the ones that actively seek to confront challenges head on? The ones that are nimble and responsive to issues of equity and justice? Shouldn’t we put our support behind those that seek to uplift and empower artists? Artists and arts workers will always have the least amount of power in this system, as it currently exists, so our focus should always lie with them. And we should seek to reimagine and rebuild systems that hold them at their center.

It’s important that we not make assumptions or judgments about why artists have or haven’t chosen to leave Froelick Gallery in the wake of the events of the last few months. Every artist’s situation, identity, level of privilege, and relationship with Froelick intersect in a different way. Some left because they wanted to take a stand against Froelick’s behavior. Dennison said, “After hearing about the Twitter feed and the testimony at OHA, I realize that I’m not on the same page as someone that I want to represent me. To me it’s a core value issue and it goes to character and integrity. The biggest insult to the community is presenting yourself as one way and coming across as another.” Seubert’s resignation was provisional. She said, “It became abundantly clear that my values do not align with Charles’s right now. I am open to going back once the pandemic is over because I really believe that the pandemic has caused so much consternation for everyone. I don’t want to throw Charles under the bus. I just need a break.” Other artists want to leave but are not in a position to do so—for myriad reasons—without the possibility that they will be considered for representation by other blue-chip galleries. Some have stayed willingly, fully aware of Froelick’s politics. Others have not even been apprised of the events of the past couple of months.

When I asked my blue-chip source if they thought their gallery might consider taking on any of Froelick’s artists or staff, they said, “In general, we wouldn’t screw over another gallery or poach an artist. But this is unprecedented. In this case it feels like it’s help, like you’re throwing people a lifeline. No one would think badly of us for picking up artists or staff.” They went on to acknowledge that this may not happen immediately because gallerists are a bit shell-shocked about what has happened to their long-time colleague. “There’s a certain amount of processing that’s still happening,” they said.

While the respected art institutions of our community take time to process things, two of the artists I spoke to, who’ve both left Froelick Gallery, were questioning reality. They’ve been witnessing the inaction of the other galleries and the overwhelming silence from the arts community, while hearing the apologists for Froelick start to speak up—and it’s causing them to wonder if they dreamed all of this. This is what our culture does to people who call out bad behavior. It gaslights and disorients them by saying Let’s just pretend this never happened and make nice again. As a result, those who have been directly affected by harmful behavior often feel unmoored, and rightly so. All the more reason for us to support one another in taking productive, affirming action.

Froelick is very good at what he does. He has impeccable taste in art and artists, which is one of the reasons why he and his gallery have been held in such high esteem for so long. The goal here is not to burn anything to the ground. The goal is to build mechanisms that allow for people to be held accountable, that allow for redemption, and that allow for us to move forward without having to bury our heads in the sand. I’m calling on the community to have these conversations and to create new structures that support these efforts.

Froelick has the right to earn a living and to seek repair. Just as the artists who are no longer comfortable working with him deserve to earn a living. But that’s not the way the system is currently set up. It will require a shift in the way we’ve always done things to ensure that those who have left or who choose to leave will have support.

The commercial galleries in town have the option of publicly standing with the artists and staff who have left, with the artists who want to leave but fear they won’t find another gallery, with the Jewish community, and with OJMCHE—their fellow arts and cultural institution—but, so far, they have not. As Schnitzer reminds us, “There is no place in this community, in this state, in this country, for any intolerance. All of us of good intention need to rise up and condemn immediately the statements of people who want to divide us and harm us.”

The most obvious organization to lead the charge would be Portland Art Dealers Association (PADA), a coalition of Portland’s commercial and nonprofit galleries of which Froelick Gallery is currently a member.

I spoke to two people who are former members of PADA’s nonprofit arm, which was called Portland Art Focus (PAF) before many of the smaller nonprofits left and it was rebranded to Oregon Visual Art Alliance. Both people described ongoing attempts to get equity measures passed—simple actions like offering a sliding scale for membership so that smaller galleries and nonprofits could afford to join—and facing continued resistance.

Regarding equity suggestions, one of them told me, “PADA said, ‘We’re definitely interested in your opinion, we want to make this work better.’ But when they were confronted with actual solutions to make it work better they said ‘No.’ So now I know that they’re not really interested in that kind of equity change.”

The other former PAF member described PADA as an insular coalition: “A lot of people were saying, ‘We shouldn’t let in new orgs.’ They let being scared of change prevent any action. People need to know that not acting is discriminatory.” They continued, ​​“It’s more about not wanting to rock the boat than about not believing in the ideals. But they need to know that if you believe in the ideals, it means rocking the boat.”

We need to ask ourselves how we want to move forward as a community. What new systems can we put into place that will support justice, equity, and transparency instead of simply paying lip service to these concepts? 

I invite everyone in the community—arts writers, collectors (big and small), institutional and independent curators, gallery owners, and art appreciators—to sign this open letter in support of artists and equity. 

In addition, here are some resources suggested by OJMCHE for those who wish to educate themselves about antisemitism:

  • Jews Don’t Count by David Baddiel
  • People Love Dead Jews by Dara Horn
  • Antisemitism: Here and Now by Deborah Lipstadt

And here is   a list of artists and staff  who have left Froelick Gallery, for anyone who wants to offer support or encouragement.

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Jennifer Rabin is a Portland-based writer, artist, and arts activist who fights for equity and increased funding for the arts. If you want to follow along, please visit https://jenniferrabin.substack.com/.

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