As his Nike deal stalls, Tom Sachs apologizes for workplace culture

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As his Nike deal stalls, Tom Sachs apologizes for workplace culture
The artist Tom Sachs in Chicago, July 8, 2022. After Nike announced that it would not move forward with his lucrative sneaker deal, Sachs apologized in a statement to The New York Times for his treatment of former staff members in his studio. (Evan Jenkins/The New York Times)

by Zachary Small

NEW YORK, NY.- After Nike announced that it would not move forward with his lucrative sneaker deal, artist Tom Sachs apologized in a statement to The New York Times for his treatment of former staff members in his studio.

“These past few months have been a time of overdue reflection,” Sachs said. “It has been painful but vital. I deeply regret that anyone, ever, felt less than supported, safe and fulfilled within my studio — but it is clear that some people did.”

The artist’s decision to publicly address issues within his studio came three months after several news reports that quoted former employees who anonymously shared their experiences about working for the notoriously demanding sculptor.

The reports snowballed into a public relations crisis for Sachs, 56, whose business empire was cleaved this week when his collaboration with Nike to produce art sneakers appeared to shatter.

“We are not working with Tom’s studio at this time and have no release dates planned,” the company said in a one-sentence statement to the Times.

Sachs experienced a reputational hit in February, after a classified ad appeared in the nonprofit New York Foundation for the Arts seeking a full-time “Executive/Personal Assistant.” It was immediately labeled by critics as “the worst art job listing ever created,” one where the winning candidate would manage everything from day care to dog poop, gardening to travel bookings and medical needs for the unnamed high-profile artist and his wife. Although the listing was posted without a name, former employees quickly recognized certain Sachsisms in the job description, such as the frequent use of the word “systems” to describe regular chores.

Investigations in Curbed and Artnet News later quoted several former employees of the studio without attribution who described a hostile office culture in which Sachs had verbally abused people, thrown tantrums, described some workers as “autistic” and appeared in a Zoom meeting with Nike employees while in his underwear. Sachs’ studio denied many of the complaints, while saying that other accounts — including an allegation that he described a basement storage space as “the rape room” — were intended as jokes.

In a March letter to employees, which Sachs’ spokesperson, Carly Holden, sent to the Times, the artist expressed regret about his comments and said he was working to “improve” himself while formalizing human resource policies.

On Tuesday, Holden told the Times that the Sachs studio has since put into place clearer job descriptions and overhauled its employee handbook to ensure better professionalism. The changes include mandatory harassment-prevention training for everyone, including Sachs.

“As our business grew at a rapid pace and cultural norms progressed, we did not take the necessary time to professionalize our operations,” Sachs said in his statement. “I wish I had prioritized this a decade ago.”

In the statement, he denied harassing anyone.

“Over my 30-year career I have never harassed anyone, or tried to make anyone feel uncomfortable,” he wrote. “I am committed to building a studio culture that better aligns with the values that I have tried to perpetuate and explore as an artist.”

Sachs belongs to a generation of artists who became famous in the 1990s for a machismo style that mixed luxury brands with everyday trash (he made toilet plungers from orange Hermès boxes and rat sculptures from Balthazar restaurant packaging). His interest in corporate culture influenced the cultlike way he managed his studio.

“A cult just means — when you look it up — it just means a group of people with idiosyncratic and shared values,” Sachs told the Times last year. “Everyone’s welcome to leave whenever they want.”

In March, Nike responded to the controversy by saying it was “deeply concerned by the very serious allegations.” After the company missed a scheduled April release of sneakers from its collaboration with Sachs, called General Purpose, it became clear to sneaker enthusiasts that the partnership had effectively ended.

“Nike will not touch any kind of salacious allegations involving people that it has endorsement deals with,” said Kenneth Anand, a lawyer and co-author of “Sneaker Law: All You Need to Know About the Sneaker Business.”

Sachs has released several sneaker models with the company since 2012, and the shoes have become expensive collectors items that are sometimes resold for several times their original value. The original, called Mars Yard, featured Vectran fabric similar to what NASA had proposed for its Mars Exploration Rover air bags.

Sachs, in his statement, said he was committed to becoming a better boss. “Alongside my art,” he wrote, “this personal and professional growth is my main focus.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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