United Talent partner, board member and co-owner Jeremy Zimmer is known as an avid collector of contemporary art which he shares with the agency offices. Then again, he’s not the most sensitive of agents. (For instance, I remember him ignoring the complaints of the women in the office when he used to urinate out the window of UTA’s old offices.) So on September 16th, Zimmer decided to install in UTA public space on the 4th floor a photograph of an African youth and his chained monkey (photo left). Like all the pictures hanging at the agency, there was no identifier. I’m told that, shortly after, a group of UTA employees comprised primarily of African Americans complained to the tenpercentery’s human resources department that the image was “derogatory” to blacks. “Collectively the employees of color now feel uncomfortable and unwelcome,” one of the staffers emailed me when it happened. “This is not the first time racial discrimination has been exhibited at United Talent Agency, but it is the first time that it has been put on public view.”
A discussion ensued between the agency owners and the human resources department, which then proceeded to explain the pedigree of the photographer who had taken the picture. He’s Pieter Hugo, the award-winning South African whose haunting and often provocative portraits try to portray the reality of the African continent’s human condition, and this “Dayaba Usman With The Monkey Clear, Nigeria 2005″ was part of a very powerful series of portraits about men and their relationships with the animals they have tamed. But despite the agency’s affirmations that the artwork was not racist, the protesting staffers still said it made them uncomfortable. “I understand that some things are more offensive to others. However, if an image is offensive to anyone, in my opinion, it should be removed. Especially when there is an underlying tension felt by a minority group,” one of the African American staffers inside UTA emailed me.
In the end, Zimmer removed the photo from the agency’s foyer and placed it inside his own office. Since then, UTA tells me, there have been no more complaints.