Artist and art world tycoon Tom Sachs has made headlines in the past month for a series of allegations surrounding his exacting demands – and mistreatment – of employees. Sources have shared their stories anonymously, and Sachs’s study has denied most of the claims, but the claims have nonetheless prompted several articles, including a Contained revealed this week and set social media on fire.
The saga began on February 16, when writer and curator Emily Colucci posted on her website Dirty 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” was seeking a full-time director and personal assistant “dedicated to a simple goal: to make life easier for the couple in every possible way.” The job required the candidate to be on-call outside of normal business hours and laid out a litany of ludicrous tasks, including picking up clothes from “high-end boutiques,” acting as the point person for the couple’s fleet of household staff, and managing “dog systems” and “closet systems.” On February 26 New York Times picked up the story and things spiraled from there. Comments regarding Dirty dreams speculated that the employers were Sachs and his wife, former Gagosian Gallery director Sarah Hoover, a hypothesis later also reported by Artnet.
The collective fascination with the story of Sachs’s studio culture reveals a morbid curiosity about abuse – especially when it occurs in an industry whose public image is largely one of wealth and glamor – and a worrying normalization of such behaviour. On Containeds Instagram posts publicizing the story range from poking fun at Sachs to making fun of his workers to offering half-assed defenses of the artist in a spirit of hustle. Many of the comments also refer to external impressions and stereotypes of the toxicity of the art world and allude to the systemic problems that allow it to continue.
Allegations reported by Containedmany of them echoed by former workers Hyperallergenic spoke to, include Sachs’s strict rules, which mandate that studio workers observe various bizarre mannerisms, such as walking quietly, placing objects at parallel and 90-degree angles, and adhering to a strict diet and exercise routine, which involved group exercise while wearing uniforms ; but also his throwing of things on or near his employees: a steel plate, a piece of wood, a typewriter, clipboards, a ladder.
As with the sources who have spoken to Containedthe workers Hyperallergenic those interviewed requested anonymity, citing confidentiality agreements and fear of retaliation. While the allegations against Sachs are alarming, the fear of individuals to go on the record about this type of abuse — even when they are no longer employed by Sachs — is also troubling and suggests more pervasive problems across the cultural sphere. (If you have a history of unfair or abusive treatment in the art world, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.)
In its headline, the Contained the article’s half-jokes that Sachs “promised a funny cult”, but a former employee told Hyperallergenic that this concept wasn’t what attracted workers to the space—they were seeking a true professional opportunity. Another said they knew nothing about Sachs when they started the job and just hoped it might help them become an artist. “Now that I’ve worked in art for a long time, I know it’s not true, but he chooses young people who think it’s true,” the former employee said.
“We wanted a job in art for someone we admired to some degree. Some people were bigger fans of his art than others,” said the second worker. “But nobody signed up for it.” While the former employee mentioned Sachs’ crowd of superfans (mostly young white men), they said, the people who actually run the studio didn’t fall into that 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 it happened because you get indoctrinated and you start to believe that 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.” Communication between employees about Sachs’ behavior, they added, was difficult.
“You certainly couldn’t bring anything up,” the former employee said. “And the longer you stayed, the more you felt it was a normal working environment.”
The other former worker told Hyperallergenic about how hard it was to quit.
“It’s like a real cult because 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 reference letter, 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 talk bad about you,” the worker said. They added that Sachs repeatedly spoke negatively about his former employees.
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 former worker told Hyperallergenic that he also brought this obsession (or perhaps performative aesthetic) into his real-life studio, claiming that Sachs told employees they had to be physically fit to travel into 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 in what he believed in, which is that you actually had to go into space,” the ex-employee said. “If you used the wrong language, it was punishable because it proved that you were not fully indoctrinated into the way of thinking in which the studio operated.”
An employee who broke a rule had to give money to a piggy bank, but the former worker said the punishment also included verbal harassment. Contained lists Sachs’ 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 cook three times a day—and recounts 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 said Hyperallergenic. “Whether he was going to kick something or throw something, and I was definitely scared.”
“Everyone knows his footprints there,” said another former worker Hyperallergenic of the employees in the basement studio. “To prepare him to come down the stairs.”
Other stories center on Sachs’ alleged inappropriate sexual behavior: He is said to have watched porn in the studio, talked about his sexual preferences, worn tight underwear around the workplace and made a female employee feel uncomfortable while alone with him.
“He treated the men so very differently. The men had the potential to be his protégés,” the former employee said Hyperallergenic. “He didn’t see the women that way.” Sachs also reportedly called a basement room the “rape room” (he later renamed it the “consent room” and Contained reported that his studio said the names were meant as a joke). The other former employee told Hyperallergenic that Sachs had a box marked “asbestos” and containers marked “formaldehyde”. They said they never saw the artist actually use any of the material in a project.
Sachs has become known for stunts that could best be interpreted as provocative (for example, the Jewish artist has repeatedly depicted swastikas in his artwork and even displayed one in his studio’s lunchroom). But even before 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 yet another aspect of his eccentric art practice. In a 2022 New York Times piece by Andrew Russeth, who praised Sachs’s art for representing “what people can accomplish when they come together,” the artist is ominously quoted as saying, “A cult just means—when you look it up—it just means a group people with idiosyncratic and shared values … Everyone is welcome to leave whenever they want.” Sachs even publicly outlined his outlandish demands on employees in a 2010 film titled Ten ballsand he also provided his workers with a more detailed manual, according to Contained.
Neither Sachs’ studio, nor his New York galleries Acquavella and Sperone Westwater, nor Nike, with whom the artist has a long-standing partnership, have responded Hyperallergenic‘s request for comment. A spokesman for the artist said so Contained that “Tom Sachs Studio believes that all employees should feel safe and secure in the workplace and is committed to upholding these values.”
But the former employee told Hyperallergenic 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 gives Sachs an easy way out. “It didn’t feel like a joke to the employees, it all felt really real,” they said.
“Like the swastika in the lunchroom, they were ways for him to exercise his power in the studio because you weren’t allowed to have an opinion about what was against,” they continued. “You couldn’t say, ‘this makes me uncomfortable,’ because then you weren’t part of the gang, relaxed, part of the studio. You just had to pretend it didn’t bother you.” Contained also described a system of favoritism in which Sachs gave his favored employees expensive gifts and consistently reminded his workers that they were replaceable.
On social media, comments regarding Contained‘s piece reveals how familiar Sachs’s alleged behavior was to readers both outside, but especially within, the art world. Despite the particularity 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 scathing condemnation of how great artists treat others. “Successful artists can be complete arseholes who treat studio staff like disposable labor,” Aiosa wrote. “The lack of humanity is disgusting.”