Curator files explosive lawsuit against Robilant + Voena gallery alleging toxic workplace and other violations

Compared with the relatively frequent instances of bad behaviour in the trade for contemporary and Modern art, the champions of Old Masters tend to be thought of as not only more connoisseurial but generally more refined and upstanding. That image takes serious damage in an explosive, multimillion-dollar lawsuit filed in New York last month against Edmondo di Robilant, Marco Voena and their high-end Old Master dealership Robilant + Voena.

Brought by the curator Virginia Brilliant, who worked as an independent consultant to the gallery from December 2019 until earlier this year, the complaint (first reported by The Daily Beast) accuses the Robilant + Voena’s namesakes of creating a workplace overrun by antisemitism, sexism, sexual harassment, homophobia, body shaming and general toxicity. It also accuses the dealers of breach of contract, discriminatory labour practices and reneging on a pledge to cover hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical costs for Brilliant’s breast cancer treatment.

Prior to being hired by the gallery, Brilliant had been the head of the European paintings department at the Fine Art Museums of San Francisco since 2017. Her earlier institutional roles included being the curator of collections at the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida, following curatorial stints at the Cleveland Museum of Art and the J. Paul Getty Museum. Her work for Robilant + Voena ranged widely, from performing research and writing scholarly essays on works of art, to sourcing and selling inventory, to managing the gallery’s New York location, to translating documents from Italian into English and even “[producing] videos”. The lawsuit portrays the full scope of Brilliant’s duties as one in which she was expected to “in every respect undertake assignments that far exceeded the scope of an independent contractor”, without either support staff for most of her tenure or relief from a pervasive atmosphere of bigotry and antagonism.

Brilliant is seeking at least $3m plus additional damages to be determined, as well as the reimbursement of her legal fees. Mitchell Cantor, the lawyer representing Brilliant, told The Art Newspaper, “The complaint which was filed in New York State Supreme Court speaks for itself,” adding: “All of the relevant facts are contained in it.” A request for comment sent to Robilant + Voena was not immediately returned.

Allegations of toxicity

The most jaw-dropping accusations in the lawsuit revolve around the claims that Robilant and Voena “created a toxic workplace environment by repeatedly, regularly and constantly making misogynistic, antisemitic, racist and homophobic comments in the presence of and directed toward” Brilliant. To the latter point, the complaint alleges that Robilant repeatedly called her “a stupid f…g c…t”, presumably indicating an egregious slang term for female sexual anatomy, and subjected her to “regular telephone calls before and after business hours in which in (sic) Robilant has screamed at her and cursed at her”.

Further accusations include that Robilant and Voena “repeatedly and continually harassed [Brilliant] on the basis of her gender and physical appearance”. Such instances were said to have “occurred constantly” and included Robilant pressuring Brilliant to “have sexual relations with a colleague to secure a consignment”, enquiring about how many men she had slept with and recounting to her how he had lost his virginity. In addition, the lawsuit alleges, Voena showed Brilliant “multiple photographs of one of [his] mistresses clad only in provocative lingerie”.

Even Robilant’s wife is said to have contributed to the problems. She purportedly suggested that Brilliant lose weight “by following a diet of champagne and Xanax” and, during periods in which the curator was already enduring radiation, chemotherapy and surgery for her cancer, mailed her multiple shipments of “illegal, unprescribed” and unsolicited drugs; the contents are said to have included 1,200 Xanax tablets and what the lawsuit attests was “generic Ozempic in pill form sourced in the Balkans so ‘[Brilliant] could loose [sic] 25 pounds before [Tefaf] Maastricht’”.

Claims of antisemitism run rampant through the complaint. It asserts that Robilant and Voena “regularly and routinely used phrases such as ‘f…ing Jew’, ‘that f….g Jew’, ‘disgusting Jews’, ‘you know X’s wife is a Jew so all those pretty blond children are just more f….g Jews’, ‘they’re just greedy f….g Jews pretending to be as English as the Queen’” and more. These allegations take on an even more insidious cast in the context of Brilliant herself, who claims to have been told at one point during her tenure at the gallery that she was “just Jewish enough to be convincing to American clients”.

Other demographics came under verbal attack at Robilant + Voena, too, the complaint asserts. Voena is said to have instructed Brilliant to edit the text of an interview he had done with a journalist to “make me not sound racist: I don’t like Black people, they are disgusting, but I am not racist”. (Two other gallery staffers are said to have heard this comment.) The lawsuit also purports that Voena “regularly and routinely” used a familiar slur and its shortened form to refer to “persons he believed to be gay”, including not only Robilant himself but also Robilant’s son and uncle.

Breach of contract and workplace discrimination

The complaint makes claims of tangible, financial misdeeds done to Brilliant by Robilant and Voena, as well. It petitions the court for $580,000 for alleged uncompensated labour performed by Brilliant from 2020 until 2023, assessed at the rate of her previous curatorial salary of $145,000 annually. In comparison, her agreed compensation from Robilant + Voena consisted of a base salary of $50,000 (said to have been reduced to $40,000 in April 2020 under the auspices of cutting costs during the Covid-19 lockdowns), plus commissions ranging from 10% to 20% of profits on the sale of works depending on whether said works were sourced by Brilliant, sold by Brilliant or both.

The gallery’s promises of commission payments and medical assistance were brittle, according to the lawsuit. Brilliant alleges she is still owed a commission of $57,500 from the sale of an Orsola Caccia painting in December 2023, despite the client’s payment in full the following month. The complaint also seeks recompense for Robilant and Voena’s alleged reversal on a pledge to cover the costs of Brilliant’s medical treatments after she was diagnosed with breast cancer this February. (As an independent contractor, she received no healthcare coverage or other benefits from the gallery.) Those costs will rise to more than $200,000, the lawsuit estimates; she is suing for $257,500 to make up for the gap left by Robilant and Voena’s alleged refusal to make good on their commitment.

Underlying some of the financial accusations is an allegedly stark contrast between the compensation of Brilliant, whose doctorate from the Courtauld Institute preceded her curatorial career, versus that of a less experienced hire named Nicholas Ginsburg. Ginsburg, the lawsuit claims, had not yet turned 30 when he was brought on by Robilant + Voena as a gallery manager and sales associate, had no education beyond an undergraduate degree from Northeastern University in Boston, no experience working as an institutional curator or in a “significant or senior” role at a commercial gallery, no training in either of the gallery’s specialties (Old Master and post-war Italian art) and “no clients or any other special skills”. The complaint states he was nonetheless paid double Brilliant’s base salary, plus unspecified benefits denied her, “for the sole reason that he was male rather than female”.

The lawsuit further alleges that Brilliant was the only woman to work for the gallery for the nearly four years between her start with Robilant + Voena in December 2019 and the hiring of a female salesperson at the New York location in September 2023. The co-founders’ reactions to the collapse of potential transactions were also said to vary dramatically depending on whether Brilliant or a male colleague was responsible for leading the deal. In the latter cases, the complaint states, Robilant and Voena “were typically sympathetic”, whereas “Robilant in particular berated, castigated and screamed at [Brilliant]… in some cases demanding to know ‘how/where you f….d up’”.

Robilant + Voena currently operates galleries in London, New York, Paris and Milan. It has been a mainstay exhibitor at high-end art fairs for years, including Tefaf’s fairs in Maastricht and New York, Frieze’s fairs in London, Los Angeles and Seoul and Art Basel in Miami Beach. The defendants have until 3 July to respond to Brilliant’s lawsuit in court.