Former hospital president claims ‘unlawful’ dismissal over nude art event

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The former chief executive and president of the Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in Hamilton, New Jersey, has filed a lawsuit alleging “malicious and unlawful termination” of his role over a nude art event.

Richard Freeman, who worked with the institution for nine years, claims he was let go and told he had “intentionally violat[ed] the Hospital sexual harassment policy” for his failure to “intervene and stop a living art body painting exhibition”, according to court papers filed late last month.

The event in question was entitled Under the Italian Sky and took place as part of a fundraiser in June this year at Glenmoore Farm in Hopewell, New Jersey. The event was described as an “immersive evening of Italian cultural pursuits” and organised to raise money to fight cancer, with more than 250 guests attending.

Freeman is not thought to have been involved in the planning or direct authorisation of the display and argues that “more than 40 people—whether affiliated with the hospital, its foundation or [its parent organisation] RWJBarnabas Health—were involved in the planning and approval process”.

He argues that there were no complaints during the event, which saw graffiti artist Leon Rainbow paint a model in front of guests. Freeman further claims that the hospital’s justification for letting him go over the exhibition was, in fact, a means to avoid the payment of compensation and 12 months of severance payments, which would be due in an instance of dismissal “without cause”.

A spokesperson for the hospital says, “as this case is in active litigation, the hospital is unable to comment”. The plaintiff’s legal team has not yet responded to a request for comment.

“Everything went smoothly and we did not receive any complaints either before or after the event,” says the artist Rainbow, who painted a woman’s torso and arms in a style reminiscent of Vincent van Gogh’s famous painting The Starry Night (1889) during the event. “The body painting portion was planned many months before the event and was promoted as part of the event. This is art and to say anything different is insulting. It is shocking and appalling that someone as important as a CEO at a hospital was fired over body painting at a fundraiser.”

While the lawsuit hinges over the reason for Freeman’s firing, the situation invites comparison to public debate prompted earlier this year by a Florida-based school principal’s forced resignation after a parent complained that a lesson on Renaissance art had ventured into the “pornographic” with its inclusion of images of Michelangelo’s famous marble sculpture David (1501-04).

“It’s interesting to watch this uptick in US controversies occurring just as Manet’s Olympia, the painting of a sex worker that rocked French society in 1863, is about to arrive in the United States for the first time,” says Amy Adler, a professor at the New York University’s School of Law who has researched the relationship between law and artistic expression, referencing one of the star attractions in the upcoming Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition Manet/Degas. She adds that, “160 years later, it’s surprising that nudity in art can still cause a scandal.”

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