Most of us have stories about working in the art world. From 2011-2017 artist Nicholas Cueva served as studio manager for the Norwegian artist Bjarne Melgaard’s New York studio. The multi-media artist Melgaard is the self-proclaimed “bad boy” of the art world with work that is dense-spanning topics of violence, destruction, sexuality, aging, and self-hate. In Sweden, in 2010, his video work “All Gym Queens Deserve to Die” was criticized by UNICEF and EMPAC for child abuse—there is a scene where a man sucks on a baby’s arm. It was subsequently taken down. In 2015, when it was shown again at the Munch Museum in Oslo it was reported to the police. In 2014, Jilian Steinheuer criticized his work that made use of black mannequins, insinuating it was racist. Emotions run high around Melgaard’s work, which is his intention. Cueva experienced this firsthand working with him, after leaving he remained silent, however, when Melgaard pushed back on the critique Cueva published on his Instagram account (@gneissyoungman) Cueva had had enough and is now sharing his experiences working for the art world’s most famous provocateur. Disclaimer: I love Melgaard’s work, don’t get me wrong, but authoring provocative art does not rectify treating your staff like garbage.
Instagram has revolutionized how stories of abuse and unfavorable work environments can be shared, publicly to thousands of viewers rather than privately. Not targeted to specific employers, but the art world overall, KJ Freeman founder of Housing has recently been vocal calling on the topic of racial injustice and our favorite meme-artist Jerry Gogosian uncovers the dark side of the art market, on a daily basis. Other accounts call out specific employers, like @changethemuseum who have led the way by providing a platform for anonymous accounts of racism in museums. And, sometimes, individuals take a stance, like Jasmin Wahi, co-director of Project for Empty Space, who critiqued the Bronx Museum on her Instagram in conjunction with leaving her position there as first Social Justice Curator. These are actions of solidarity and resistance.
Now, Ceuva joins the ranks of bitter, exhausted, and brave-as-hell souls to stand up against their former employers.
Anna Mikaela Ekstrand: Yesterday you posted three rather scathing posts about your employment conditions at your former employer Bjarne Melgaard’s studio—no health insurance and withheld wages—and one about not being paid and having your work ripped off after a gig with Sverre Bjertnes. Brave and thank you. Why now, why at all?
Nicholas Cueva: A while back, I made a post about fictional art assistants who weren’t being paid. A person who I hired to work for Bjarne [Melgaard] commented on it. So I posted a joke about how we never got health insurance or regular pay from Bjarne and received a weird notice from Instagram. I had been blocked. I admired him because he had always been honest about what a monster he was. But, this new Bjarne, offended by the truth of the situation that he himself had architected set me off. I spent many years worrying I would piss someone off if I was open about the work environment at the studio. But now I’m confident in what I’ve built and am unafraid to piss anyone off I need to be forthcoming with how working there almost killed me.
Right, you mentioned that Bjarne Melgaard has blocked you for announcing that he did not pay his staff. What other communications have come from him?
He was never really in communication with me, even when in his employ. He was so volatile that an intermediary was usually used to communicate his needs. I see now this added to the way he dehumanizes those around him.
Who is supporting you in this?
No one is supporting me in a larger sense, but it is nice to see my fellow workers commiserate. It was definitely something that made us feel close at the time.
Tell me more about your relationship with Melgaard. You managed his New York studio for nearly six years. What was your day-to-day like and how involved was Melgaard?
I began working for Bjarne right out of grad school, in 2011. I came to New York to exhibit my work and got a job at his studio while I was here so I moved to New York a little over a week later to take the position. That was when the trouble started; no one picked up the phone, so I couldn’t actually go to work. I wasn’t making money and was basically homeless. I was active in Occupy Wall Street while looking for other gigs—it offered food, company, and something to do.
Melgaard’s people finally got back to me after over a month of radio silence, to onboard me—I was hungry to work in the art world, so I accepted. The job paid $15 an hour. I was told not to contact Bjarne directly, instead, I received instructions from a third party. What I didn’t know then, was that I was a scab, taking over after he had fired his whole staff over some harsh words. It was like walking into a crime scene. So, at first, it was just me, cleaning brushes alone in the giant studio all day. Bjarne came in at night to paint. We occasionally met—I hated it as his dog would bite me and shit everywhere—but we were mostly ships in the night.
Describe the workplace with one word.
In one word? I can’t. Everything is nuanced. I’m just as culpable in the scenario. I’m not interested in pretending, but. I was young and foolish. If I can’t be treated with the respect to be heard, I will take my pound of flesh.
When did you realize that Melgaard’s studio was lacking as a workplace and when did it start bothering you?
Pretty soon the workload increased dramatically and I was allowed to hire more painters. I hired a bunch of friends from my grad school and a few from Hunter, a group I had loose connections with. I was bumped up in pay but kept on a 1099. It was a fun time, being broke and painting all day. I was living the dream until I got a blood infection and was hospitalized. I didn’t have insurance—because I was a 1099 worker—I didn’t know better, I didn’t know I needed to be my own advocate. I had heart surgery to replace a valve and accrued my first hefty hospital debts and, despite negotiations, I am still plagued by them. I kick myself for all the lost time, money, and health. After that, I stuck things out in order to pay my hospital debt.
Coming back from the hospital, I still had my job which I thought was kindness, but in retrospect, I realize it was because I was vital to the studio operations. For Bjarne, I got everything done. I figured out gallery shows, museum shows, and whatever was thrown at me. The studio grew as Bjarne rose to fame, at one point fifty people worked under me to prepare for his participation in the Whitney Biennial in 2014 and his solo “The Casual Pleasure of Disappointment” at Thaddeus Ropac in Paris in 2017, along with prep for other shows. Bjarne came in, boyfriend on his arm, making demands and requests—that’s when I lost respect for him.
Being the studio’s manager, how did you emote and engage with staff as both a manager, but ultimately not the person with the last say. Do you have any regrets?
I was always making excuses for him. I was a cult member. Now, I feel very guilty. It was my insistence and leadership that kept many people working there, despite the nature of the job. I was complicit and thought I was important which made me put myself and others in compromised positions. Most people only worked there for a year or two; I helped keep the unhealthy system going. I regret leading others into this quagmire and I regret not having the self-respect to push back when things weren’t right. I was both the union buster and the head of the union. I was a rat.
You wrote on Instagram that you have stories and that you are an open book. Please share.
Drugs. Piss play. Dog shit. Million-dollar diamond necklaces. Boyfriends. Toilets. The “N” word. Nazi paraphernalia. Nambla magazines. Serial killers. He was so desperate to be perceived as a “bad” guy, a lot was going on.
In terms of work, at one point he didn’t think a painting was blue enough (though it was pure pigment of the highest quality, and the blue he picked). It couldn’t get more blue, but it wasn’t blue enough for him and he raised a big fuss. He came back days later and congratulated me on fixing it…I hadn’t touched it. What the fuck did he know. I think he’s a great artist, but as I look back I realize the toll it took on my life and I don’t care anymore. What do I have to lose? When I first started, I cleaned so many brushes I one day passed out because of the fumes. After a few years, I had damaged my hands, painting so much. I went through years of physical therapy to fix it. However, there was a constant flow of diet coke which, in my myopic world was a real perk.
In your Instagram post you mention that at one point you and the other staff at the studio were not paid for three months. Someone commented that they had seen graffiti in Oslo asking for Bjarne to pay them.
Bjarne’s unwillingness to pay his people in a timely manner resulted in a lot of real-world consequences. Money was always in flux, as it always is in art. What was hard for us was that we would see extravagant spending just as we were told we had to wait for our paychecks. There was a fashion project where we used dolls and he insisted we buy the most expensive ones. All the dolls were the same, the higher cost was based on the clothes they came with, which we would just throw away—it was foolish. I saw a million dollars get wasted over my time at the studio. It’s my fault for sticking around. I thought I wouldn’t have any connection to the art world without him, not knowing how wrong I was. How I was my best bet.
Sverre Bjertnes ripped off your painting style. Were you in touch with him about it? How did it go down? In a dream scenario, what would have been the best outcome/situation?
Sverre Bjertnes was a dingleberry hanging off of Bjarne’s ass. They did a lot of collaborations and I had my hand in all of them in New York, so when the time came and Sverre hired me for his work, I assumed I would get paid. Sverre was painting realism at the time and we made a bunch of work that he put his finishing touches on. Around the same time I was making these near monochromatic abstractions, biometric forms on thick textured woven fabric, working in obscurity as a good little Bushwick artist. Then I got a wild hair and asked the powers that be if I could send some of my work to Rod Bianco Gallery in Oslo (Bjarne’s side project at the time) and they said ‘Why not.’ About nine months later I saw that Sverre was now using a highly textured surface monochromatic abstraction with biometric forms. Not that I invented it either, but it was too coincidental. Especially after his non-payment. I’ve had plenty of artists rip me off. It’s part of the game—but to be ripped off both financially and creatively, oi.
The lines between professional and personal are often vague in the art world, in addition, work is not often 9-5. Intimate and familial relationships develop quickly as these settings frame much work. HR departments are lacking or nonexistent and although teams are getting larger, many teams are small. What identifiers mark that one is being taken advantage of or downright abused versus, say being accepted into an inner circle or passionate about the job?
At one point, near the end, I was making $31/hr as a manager, but the other employees—also 1099’s—wanted a raise from $25/hr. I fought for them and everyone got $31/hr. I was happy for them and to have succeeded with the negotiations, but it felt like a rub as I was paid the same but had much more responsibility. This kind of weird disrespect tainted most situations; I was made to feel put down.
I’m sure if there’s a counter to this article, one instance would be brought up. During one of Bjarne’s late-night freak-outs, I was to have some works delivered to Luxembourg and Dayan for his show going up. I had hired a friend with a truck who was an art handler but he didn’t tie down the works and crossing the Williamsburg bridge some pieces flew from the truck, onto the bridge and were damaged. Ironically, they were prints of the police report from Bjarne’s assault on his boyfriend. I took a talking to, but again, since I was necessary they didn’t let me go. I thought they were empathetic but I’m now certain it was out of convenience.
As the art market continues to grow and artists increasingly become brands, or factories—at the very least corporations. What can large artist studios do better?
There’s no use dreaming, I can’t afford to dream. It’s all a scam. But I’m learning how to play the game.
What other artists have you worked with?
Liz Nielsen, Mary-Beth Edelson, Joe Scanlan, Van Neistat, and Katayoun Vaziri, all lovely people.
Any closing statements?
In an attempt to keep me from having any rights as an employee, the studio forgot to have me sign a non-disclosure so I am speaking out within a legal framework. People will say I am acting out because I’m bitter. Sure, I have had a few years of bad health and I’m looking back with regrets. But, Bjarne was constantly stirring up trouble, calling people out, and humiliating those he saw who wronged him. Why shouldn’t I?
Cultbytes has reached out to both Bjarne Melgaard and Sverre Bjertnes for comments with no response as of yet.
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Anna Mikaela Ekstrand is editor-in-chief and founder of Cultbytes. She mediates art through writing, curating, and lecturing. Her latest books are Assuming Asymmetries: Conversations on Curating Public Art Projects of the 1980s and 1990s and Curating Beyond the Mainstream. Send your inquiries, tips, and pitches to firstname.lastname@example.org.