Metro

Sex, power, and photography. At MassArt, how far is too far?

Nicholas Nixon was photographed at his exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts in 2010.
Nicholas Nixon was photographed at his exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts in 2010. (Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff/file)

For one assignment, the acclaimed professor asked students to photograph seven people they wanted to sleep with.

For another, a female student was allegedly told to shoot 10 penises, while a male counterpart was asked to snap 10 vaginas. And why not start the assignment, the professor suggested, with each other?

Photographer Nicholas Nixon has long been known for his provocative classes at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. But even students awestruck by his piercing examinations of the human body and his best-known series of work, “The Brown Sisters,” were stunned when he asked them to analyze pictures of his own penis.

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“Artists are always pushing boundaries between provocative and inappropriate, and then that line gets crossed and it becomes very clear,” said Robin Myers, a 2012 graduate of MassArt. “The penis photo incident was where that line became very clear for me.”

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Nixon, whose work is currently on view at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art, abruptly retired from the state school amid an investigation into alleged inappropriate behavior, the school announced March 22.

The MassArt campus in Boston.
Keith Bedford/Globe Staff
The MassArt campus in Boston.

For months, the Globe has been investigating claims of sexual harassment against Nixon made by his former students. In approximately 25 interviews, more than a dozen former students claimed Nixon went far beyond pushing the boundaries of art as he suffused his classroom with sexuality.

Several people said Nixon, who as an employee of MassArt was paid with state tax dollars, asked them to pose partially or fully nude for him while they were his students. Others said his vulgar remarks in class were commonplace, such as the time he allegedly told a student, “You have an amazing ass.” While MassArt won’t comment on whether it has a policy about teachers asking students to pose nude, others in the field say it’s a bad idea in a school setting.

At least a handful of women received inappropriate e-mails from the professor. In one, he asked a former student who had posed nude for him whether she’d like to be “an old friend with a benefit.” Another woman said she received an e-mail from Nixon while she was a student in which the professor recounted an erotic dream he’d had about her.

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These missives, sent from Nixon’s private account, often contained a plea to delete them, five women told the Globe.

In an e-mail to a former Globe reporter in late February, the photographer defended himself while asking whether the newspaper was investigating him.

“I encourage students to accept and use their sexuality [as] part of their putting the best they have into their work,” Nixon said in the e-mail, sent a week before his retirement in early March. “I have never hit on, touched or done anything personal.”

In a later statement to the Globe, Nixon said he realized his teaching style might have offended some students.

“I realize that I should have censored myself more,” he said in the statement. “To those students, I offer my profound apology.”

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Acclaimed for his visceral black and white images of AIDS patients, children, and the elderly, Nixon, 70, is perhaps best known for his unblinking portrayal of women, dignity, and aging through “The Brown Sisters,” a series of annual portraits he’s shot of his wife and her sisters over the past four decades.

Visitors viewed the exhibition “Nicholas Nixon: Persistence of Vision” at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art.
Greg Cook/Wonderland
Visitors viewed the exhibition “Nicholas Nixon: Persistence of Vision” at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art.

His behavior in class, however, could be more jarring.

“I remember him pointing to a self-portrait a classmate made, a portrait of her in her underwear bending over from behind, and he said, ‘Her pussy is right there,’ ” recalled one former student who graduated in 2006. “It felt like the conversation always led back to sex.”

Three women unaffiliated with the school said the photographer tried to initiate sexual contact during photo shoots, asking to kiss them while they were naked or partially nude and alone with him.

“He was taking photos of me lying back on the bed,” recalled Alison Criscitiello, who at the time was a PhD student at MIT. “He sat on the bed and asked if he could kiss me.”

All three of the women said Nixon was not physically aggressive and did not pursue them after they declined his advances.

Nixon, a photographer of national renown whose works have been collected by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art, and the Museum of Fine Arts, lent star power to MassArt’s small photography department.

School administrators have been tight-lipped since sending a letter to the MassArt community announcing Nixon’s retirement and the pending investigation under Title IX, the federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender.

MassArt president David Nelson declined an interview request.

A spokesperson for the school directed reporters to its earlier letter, which said in part, “Mr. Nixon is no longer in the classroom or on campus.”

The imbroglio has ignited a roiling debate at MassArt over sexuality in the classroom. Another professor, experimental filmmaker Saul Levine, announced last week that he was being pushed out following student complaints about an in-class screening of a film featuring images of him having sex.

But in the Nixon case, there appear to have been no complaints until the Globe started investigating his alleged behavior, according to his attorney, Bruce Singal, who added that Nixon formalized photo sessions with written agreements.

“The conduct we’re aware of was strictly consensual,” Singal said. “It is alarming to me that the school is seeming now to take a completely different posture than at any time in the previous 42 years.”

He added: “This school marketed Mr. Nixon’s presence very widely. . . . They were very proud that he was part of their school.”

None of the people interviewed for this story had previously filed complaints with the university about Nixon. Many said they were dazzled by his work and stature in the photography community, adding that Nixon was an effective teacher they wanted to please and felt at the time that it was an honor to pose for him.

“People forgave things that made them uncomfortable, or they thought he was making them uncomfortable to make them a better or more edgy artist,” said Jess T. Dugan, who graduated in 2007. “In hindsight, it’s very clear that these are things that a powerful professor shouldn’t have done [in class] to young or vulnerable art students.”

News of the school’s investigation has divided the arts community.

Photographer David Hilliard, who studied with Nixon in the early 1990s and has also taught at the school, described Nixon’s teaching style as very open and challenging, comparing his classes to a “photo boot camp.”

Nicholas Nixon photographed a woman in 2012.
Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff
Nicholas Nixon photographed a woman in 2012.

“He spoke openly about the human body and sexuality,” said Hilliard, who was unaware of the current allegations.

Hilliard and others stressed that in art school students often expect — and are expected — to explore themselves emotionally and take artistic risks.

While nude modeling is commonplace in art classes, some of Nixon’s alleged behavior astounded Lorie Novak, a professor of photography & imaging at New York University.

“To ask undergraduate students in your class to pose nude for you is unacceptable, and from my point of view one of the very definitions of sexual harassment,” Novak said. “The student is powerless.”

Chris Maliga, who graduated from MassArt in 2011, recalled one class when Nixon instructed them to pair up and photograph each other in rooms around the department.

“Nick had three or four students he really wanted to photograph shirtless,” Maliga said. “He brought them into an office individually, closed the door, and photographed them topless,” later showing some of the photos in class.

And then there were the formal assignments: “He would say, ‘Your assignment for the next week is to photograph seven people you want to sleep with,’ ” said Maliga, now a studio manager for the photo department at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Quinn Gorbutt, who graduated from MassArt in 2012, recalled the professor once assigned him to photograph 10 vaginas. Myers, who was in the same class, had the complementary assignment of 10 penises.

They said Nixon suggested they start by photographing each other.

“I think he wanted to get me out of my comfort zone,” said Gorbutt, who added that neither he nor Myers completed the assignment.

Through it all, Nixon would routinely seek to photograph his students, including Brittany Roberts, a 2014 graduate.

“No alarm bells went off,” said Roberts, who declined requests while in Nixon’s class.

Then came the e-mail: Nixon said he had something to tell her, Roberts recalled, but she had to promise not to tell anyone.

“He had a dream that we were kissing on a bed and I was enjoying it,” Roberts said. “He ended the e-mail with, ‘Isn’t that interesting, dot, dot, dot.’ ”

Roberts later deleted the message, but not before sharing its details with friends, one of whom corroborated her account.

MassArt currently has three pending Title IX sexual harassment investigations, according to the federal Department of Education’s website.

The details of such investigations are often kept under wraps, so the subjects of these earlier investigations remain unclear. In a letter addressed to MassArt president Nelson, however, Nixon’s attorney accused the school of violating the confidentiality of the Title IX investigation in the Nixon case.

While the school’s investigation appears to be concentrating on Nixon’s in-class behavior, interviews with former students and models who posed for him raise other concerns.

Artists who use nude models are expected to follow certain ethical guidelines to ensure their subjects are comfortable, refraining from unapproved touching, and trying to maintain a professional environment.

“It’s complicated terrain,” said Hilliard, a professor whose own work often features nudity. “You have to really be in tune with your model and what their level of comfort is. If you lose track of that, you’re in trouble.”

After graduating from MassArt in 2008, Lindsay Metivier agreed to pose nude for Nixon at her Jamaica Plain home in late 2011.

Metivier recalled Nixon was very professional during the shoot, but at the end, as she was still naked, Nixon asked to hug her.

“I’m embarrassed to say that a younger version of myself didn’t feel like I could say no,” said Metivier.

Nevertheless, they discussed a second shoot in the coming months. As they began scheduling the session, however, Nixon wrote her he’d had “complicated” feelings during the first shoot.

After Metivier asked Nixon to elaborate, he wrote back: “Complicated means I found myself drawn to you, inappropriate as it is.”

In a separate e-mail that same day, Nixon asked Metivier whether she felt similarly. “So what about you? Was I wrong? It wouldn’t be the first time. Do you want to be an old friend with a benefit?”

At the end of these e-mails, Nixon asked Metivier to delete the messages. The following year, she said, Nixon apologized in an e-mail for his behavior.

Kay Lazar can be reached at kay.lazar@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKayLazar. Malcolm Gay can be reached at malcolm.gay@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @malcolmgay.