Bob Fink at his home in Everett. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Bob Fink at his home in Everett. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Unaware of sex scandal, Schack named him Artist of the Year

A showcase by Everett photographer Bob Fink — a major donor — was delayed due to his art, not his past, Schack leaders say.

EVERETT — Long before his Artist of the Year showcase was postponed, Bob Fink’s portraits of Indigenous peoples troubled leaders at the Schack Art Center.

The first red flag was the proposed title.

Fink, who is white, wanted to call his collection, “Primitive Tribes: Now But for How Long?”

Schack leaders balked at labeling people as “primitive.” It was one of many issues of cultural sensitivity staff called to Fink’s attention over the nearly two years the center spent preparing for the showcase, said Schack Executive Director Judy Tuohy, an Everett city councilmember who narrowly lost a bid for mayor in 2017.

But the exhibition itself wasn’t the only cause for concern.

As a psychiatrist, Fink had been fired from a government health care job in New Zealand in 2016, amid sexual misconduct allegations in the United States. That’s according to articles by The New Zealand Herald at the top of a Google search of his full name, “Robert Ivan Fink.”

Washington regulators found evidence Fink had sex with a patient and wrote her opioid painkiller prescriptions while running a private practice in Everett, the New Zealand newspaper reported. The allegations led him to surrender his state medical license and to lose his credentials abroad.

Tuohy said Schack leadership did not know about Fink’s checkered past in late July, when they postponed the exhibit until 2022. For weeks, Tuohy declined The Daily Herald’s requests to explain the delay, then agreed to talk alongside an attorney who serves on the Schack board.

“We deal with artists as artists. And we don’t label them anything,” Tuohy said Aug. 27.

Art class instructors must pass a background check. Otherwise, the Schack doesn’t “look at people’s pasts,” she said.

Tuohy attributed the delay to problems with the exhibit’s images and narrative. Two weeks before it was to open Aug. 5, she said, Fink informed staff he was unwilling to make adjustments.

As details emerged about the squabble, as well as Fink’s past, both the artist and the nonprofit have tried to protect their reputations. The parallel controversies raise questions about how cultural institutions such as the Schack vet the work they display — and the creators they promote.

The dispute also touches on a theme the art community has grappled with for years: Should an artist’s problematic personal past come into play when considering the merit of the work?

Framed photographs by Bob Fink. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Framed photographs by Bob Fink. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

‘Our onus’

Fink maintains he was blindsided by the postponement.

Until late July, he said, the only issue the Schack team cited was the title. To assuage them, Fink changed the name to “The World’s Vanishing Tribes.” The Schack approved that name, but later the board of directors decided it was “not politically correct,” according to a staff email.

Fink and the board settled on “Indigenous Peoples: Photos from the Ends of the Earth.” The images feature remote tribes in Ethiopia and Papua New Guinea, nations he visited as a travel photographer.

Fink is a longtime supporter of the Schack, formerly known as the Arts Council of Snohomish County. He estimates he’s contributed about $25,000 in monetary donations, auction items and annual dues over a span of 30 years.

Carie Collver, the gallery director and chief curator, nominated him for Artist of the Year in 2019. Collver declined requests for interviews with The Herald, referring questions to Tuohy.

Fink, now 72, said his psychiatry career is irrelevant to the exhibit’s controversy.

The Washington Medical Commission alleged he “violated the standard of care” when he prescribed three of his friends opioid painkillers, records from the state Department of Health show. He also had sex with one of the patients, a woman who openly admitted to using heroin, according to the commission.

In an interview, Fink denied allegations that the relationship amounted to sexual misconduct. He also denied he prescribed opioids. But state records show he previously admitted to writing prescriptions for the three friends over several years, starting in the late 2000s. He also described sexual encounters with the woman while she lived in his home.

After the Schack’s board of directors named him Artist of the Year, his solo exhibition was delayed, at first, because of the pandemic.

Then it was delayed again over the concerns about his art.

“I put so much effort into this,” Fink said. “It’s hard for someone to just say, five days before you’re supposed to deliver it to them, ‘Sorry, Charlie. It’s two years of your life and all this effort, but you can’t do it.’”

The center’s leaders provided a three-sentence statement when The Herald sought comment for an Aug. 5 story on the sudden postponement. Staff needed more time to update policies on curating shows and displaying images of Indigenous people, the statement said.

“The Schack Art Center looks forward to working closely with Mr. Fink to display his work in a manner that highlights his vision and also aligns with the forthcoming policies,” according to the statement published in The Herald.

Then on Aug. 6, Tuohy sent an email to Schack supporters that criticized the article for lacking context.

She apologized to the center’s art patrons “for the confusion surrounding the postponement” and “for any negative light” the story might have cast on a racial equity consultant who was involved in discussions about the exhibit.

Tuohy was disappointed in the story’s focus on a text message that was shared with The Herald by Fink. The gallery director, Collver, told Fink via text that the consultant had likened the exhibit to showing “monkeys in a zoo.”

As The Herald reported in the story, the consultant later said Schack staff took his comment out of context. The consultant, Bernardo Ruiz of Racing to Equity, clarified that he told Schack staff: “Indigenous people are NOT monkeys in a zoo.”

While working with Fink on his exhibit, Schack staff also received training from the Seattle-based firm, which advises governments and businesses on racial equity policies and practices.

Ruiz never saw Fink’s photos, and he never explicitly said the exhibit should be postponed. However, he did offer advice on how to appropriately display images of tribal people, based on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

In an email to The Herald, Tuohy said the article “drove home that very inflammatory language” about monkeys in a zoo, “which garnered lots of attention and outrage.”

“You asked about my concerns with how the article was written — I was not asked to preview the article before press,” Tuohy wrote. “I certainly would hope the Everett Daily Herald would view Mr. Fink’s temper tantrum with a little more caution.”

Then, in a subsequent email, Tuohy said that email was “off the record.”

As a policy, The Herald does not allow sources to review articles before publication, and it’s standard journalistic practice for all conversations to be on the record unless both the reporter and interviewee agree on ground rules before the interview.

In the Aug. 27 interview, Tuohy acknowledged the staff member who wrote the text message had misunderstood Ruiz’s comment.

“The staff recognizes that they mistook the slogan when they texted it to Bob,” Tuohy said. “It’s our onus, and we apologize for that.”

“Boy” by Bob Fink is a portrait of boy from the Mursi Tribe of the Omo Valley in Ethiopia.

“Boy” by Bob Fink is a portrait of boy from the Mursi Tribe of the Omo Valley in Ethiopia.

‘Wrong for the right reason’

Fink’s career as a local psychiatrist spanned about 40 years. He has been known for both his medical practice and love of art.

Sometimes, his passions converged. His 2005 documentary “Wally​” detailed the struggle of one of his patients to find the right care for her brother, 56, who had lived with cerebral palsy.​

His work as a travel photographer has been featured in galleries in the United States and New Zealand, as well as on National Geographic’s website.

After he was accused of sexual misconduct in 2015, Fink decided to retire as a psychiatrist because he faced restrictions on his practice, he told The Herald in August.

He wanted to keep that unseemly chapter of his life private and avoid negative coverage in the local press, he said.

“I couldn’t make myself look good if this stuff came out, if certain people wanted me to look bad, or chose to buy into that, without looking further into it,” he said.

The woman who accused him of misconduct was once a friend, he said. Her name is redacted in state records.

Fink prescribed her some medications when a previous psychiatrist stopped seeing her, he acknowledged. But, according to Fink, he didn’t prescribe her opioids.

Fink said she accused him of forcing her to have sex with him for drugs when he refused to give her $30,000 before he moved to New Zealand. She was dependent on money he paid her to maintain a historic Everett home, a Lake Stevens farm and other properties he owned.

“And I refused,” he said, “because she also was a heroin addict, and she was just going to blow through it.”

“Here’s a fault of mine,” he added. “I try to rescue people at times — people who I thought really had a lot going for them, but for one reason or another, weren’t accessing those positive qualities and making their life as good as it should be. In this case I did try to rescue her, and it didn’t work out. Most of the time it doesn’t work out.”

Five years ago, Fink provided the medical commission with an uncensored account of his years-long relationship with the woman. He met her around 2006. She and her boyfriend later began living in Fink’s home while working on his properties, he said in a 20-page letter responding to an inquiry from the commission.

Fink’s letter, along with other records of the commission’s investigation, were provided to The Herald by the state Health Department in September in response to a public records request.

As their friendship developed, Fink offered to treat the woman’s “painfully obvious” ADHD, he wrote. Her previous doctor cut ties with her because she wasn’t paying bills or showing up to appointments, he wrote.

“I never considered my relationship with her to be a doctor-patient relationship,” Fink wrote.

The sex was consensual, a “relatively insignificant part of our relationship,” according to Fink’s letter. They both felt guilty. She had a boyfriend. He was married.

“We spent so much time and money at the casinos that after a while I attained a VIP level that provided me free rooms at the Tulalip Casino Hotel,” Fink wrote.

He paid her to model for photographs. In one photo shoot, she struck poses in various outfits next to an old caboose at a rail yard, Fink told investigators. The lighting was “perfect,” Fink said, with the sun breaking through the clouds at dusk.

The snapshots “were provocative,” he said. “Like old pinup shots.”

The commission cited those photographs and patient records, provided by the woman’s attorney, as evidence of misconduct.

When the patient eventually told Fink of her addiction, he was surprised, he recalled in the letter. He arranged for her to get into drug treatment, but she never stayed, he told the commission.

For her part, the woman reported she first met Fink through an appointment at his office. She told him she was living “in a stressful situation,” and at some point he invited her to move in with him.

She also reported Fink told her to lie to the Washington Physicians Health Program, an organization that supports doctors in recovery. A random drug test found methamphetamine in his urine, according to her report. Fink denied that he had asked her to lie.

The commission sought Fink’s treatment records from the program. According to his attorney, those records were confidential, as Fink did not waive his right to keep them private.

Fink admitted to prescribing drugs to the woman and her boyfriend, who was also addicted to heroin, as well as a third man who introduced him to the couple. The commission accused Fink of prescribing the three friends opioids without consulting a pain management specialist. He also failed to “properly evaluate pain levels,” “document treatment alternatives” and “establish a treatment plan,” according to the commission.

In return for surrendering his license in 2016, the medical commission agreed to forego further disciplinary proceedings. The agreement was “not a formal disciplinary action and shall not be construed as a finding of unprofessional conduct or inability to practice.”

Fink maintains he had good intentions.

“It’s not like I didn’t do anything wrong,” he told The Herald. “But I did wrong for the right reason.”

Meanwhile, in 2015, Fink began working for the Waikato District Health Board’s adult mental health outpatient services south of Auckland, New Zealand.

He only informed board managers of the sexual misconduct complaint the following year, when he faced restrictions on his Washington medical license, according to the New Zealand Herald.

The health board fired him immediately, and the country revoked his medical credentials.

Fink told The Herald he disclosed the complaint to a supervisor upon learning of an investigation in the United States. But the supervisor advised him to keep it secret from the health district, Fink said, because his job in New Zealand was temporary.

Fink and his wife moved back to Everett.

In retirement, he expanded his travel photo portfolio through trips to all seven continents.

Chuck Close at The Schack Art Center in 2016. (Dan Bates / Herald file)

Chuck Close at The Schack Art Center in 2016. (Dan Bates / Herald file)

‘Lesson learned’

In late 2017, a debate ignited around famed photorealistic painter Chuck Close, an artist of international renown with roots in Snohomish County. Two women told The New York Times that Close sexually harassed them while they posed for him at his studio.

The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., canceled an exhibition of Close’s work over the scandal. Close denied he harassed the women, but apologized.

“Last time I looked, discomfort was not a major offense,” Close told The Times. “I never reduced anyone to tears, no one ever ran out of the place. If I embarrassed anyone or made them feel uncomfortable, I am truly sorry, I didn’t mean to. I acknowledge having a dirty mouth, but we’re all adults.”

It left a lasting stain on his legacy.

Close was born in Monroe. He went to Everett High School. He returned to his childhood hometown when his work was displayed at the Schack in 2016.

He donated an original print of one of his works, “Self Portrait,” to the Monroe Library.

In August, Close died at 81 in New York, where he spent most of his life.

It was well after Close’s controversy when Schack staff paused Fink’s exhibit — over his photos, not the alleged sexual misconduct — after receiving samples of his images and the accompanying narrative. Staff informed Fink they were worried about how he described the tribes as vanishing, without facts to support that assertion, Executive Director Tuohy said. They were also reluctant to show Fink’s images of naked children, she said.

Fink said the exhibit is about “the tragedy of the tribes,” whose ancient ways of life are threatened by technology, development and commerce.

“They probably aren’t going to exist for much longer because the countries where they live are into progress,” he told The Herald. “It will be like the Native Americans here. They’ll be moved off their tribal lands.”

Tuohy said the center worked with Fink on how to best exhibit his photos for 18 months.

“I wasn’t there, so obviously we can improve on our communications,” Tuohy said. “It’s a lesson learned.”

The Schack Art Center, established by the Arts Council of Snohomish County, is a not-for-profit visual arts center. A pillar of the local art scene, it hosts gallery shows, art classes and artist studios in the heart of downtown Everett.

The center employs local artists through residency programs, offers gallery field trips for public school students and hosts weekly classes for at-risk youth — among many other cultural contributions.

In 2019, the Schack reported about $1.6 million in total expenses and about the same amount of total revenue, including more than $600,000 in grants and donations, according to tax records.

“The Schack” is named for Everett philanthropists John and Idamae Schack. It’s steered by 16 board members and the executive director. Tuohy and almost all of the board members are white.

Schack exhibitions get postponed all the time, for a variety of reasons, Tuohy said, but the goal always is to get it right. Sometimes artists need more time, sometimes the Schack needs more time.

Two weeks before his showcase’s opening day, Fink provided the Schack with the images, their titles and the overall narrative. Other than the title change, his plan was essentially the same as the one he provided in 2020, Tuohy said.

Collver, the gallery director, and a gallery assistant told Fink the Schack couldn’t present the exhibit as he planned it.

Fink offered to take out the few images of naked children. Schack leadership still declined.

They suggested turning his exhibition into a broader retrospective of his photography. Fink didn’t want to do that.

He offered not to profit from the “Indigenous Peoples” photographs, even though his contract called for the Schack to get 40% of sales, with 60% going to Fink. But the nonprofit declined that offer, too.

On the “Vanishing Tribes of the Omo Valley” photo tour in Ethiopia, Fink’s subjects chose how to present themselves, he said, adding that tribal leaders approved every photo he took. He stayed with each tribe for about a week. ORYX Photo Tours paid his subjects by the camera click. Fink didn’t know the exact rate, but he believed it was somewhere between 10 cents and $1.

Spaces are available for the same guided tour in 2022, at a price tag of $9,995 per artist.

‘All you can do

White artists depicting people of color have faced increased scrutiny in the 21st century, especially in the two years since Fink was selected for the exhibition.

The Black Lives Matter movement has sparked conversations about racism embedded in American institutions, policies and practices — from city halls to schools to courtrooms to art galleries. Many museums have been making a heightened effort to showcase work that honors cultures without exploiting them.

“Museums are cornerstones in our communities and among the most trusted sources of information by the public,” Laura Lott, president and CEO of the American Alliance of Museums, wrote in January. “We have a duty to respond to our nation’s reckoning with racism and other forms of injustice.”

The alliance has published resources to help museums commit to anti-racism and support other initiatives under the umbrella of “diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion.”

Last year, the Seattle Art Museum created a senior position for a director of equity, diversity and inclusion, and also formed an equity task force, according to the museum’s website. SAM recently updated policies for displaying images of Indigenous peoples, Tuohy said, and the Schack is following suit.

“We are working to adopt policies and procedures to ensure all programs at the Schack will support equity and inclusion from here on out,” Tuohy said. “This work does include exhibit policies and ensuring that we present all cultural narrative exhibits in a respectful and honoring way.”

In June, at a showcase 50 miles northwest of Everett, the San Juan Islands Museum of Art welcomed an exhibit that did not garner controversial press: “African Twilight: Vanishing Rituals & Ceremonies,” by American photographer Carol Beckwith and Australian photographer Angela Fisher.

The pair spent years photographing remote tribes to “record a disappearing culture of Africa before it is too late,” the museum says on its website.

“These women have been photodocumenting traditions and ceremonies since 1975,” said Peter Lane, the museum’s director of operations. “So they’ve been doing it a long time.”

The San Juan museum does not have policies specific to artistic images of Indigenous people, Lane said. But part of its mission is to “recognize and embrace diversity and cultural awareness,” he added.

British photographer Jimmy Nelson drew widespread criticism with his 2013 book, “Before They Pass Away,” which featured Indigenous peoples from 35 cultures around the world. Tribal leaders said Nelson’s portrayal romanticized the tribes and inaccurately depicted them as on the brink of extinction.

Over the preceding century, National Geographic built a media empire on photography fixated on so-called “savages,” seen through a white, Western lens. An editor’s note from 2018, reexamining the magazine’s past, illustrated how times have changed. The headline: “For Decades, Our Coverage Was Racist.”

William Zingarelli, a Stanwood attorney who serves on the Schack board, said the local art center needs a cultural representative to assess the validity of Fink’s artistic narrative. Fink is a man of privilege, reflecting on experiences with many tribal cultures, some of which don’t fit the bill of “vanishing,” Zingarelli said.

“Just because you go out in the world, and you come up with an idea, doesn’t make it so,” Zingarelli said. “Putting labels on other cultures — that’s a white thing to do. And it’s not correct.”

Fink acknowledged his privilege. He said it allowed him to experience things that no one else has.

“The word ‘primitive’ is not OK. I’ve learned that,” Fink said. “I can’t call them ‘primitive people.’ And they’re not primitive. It is the way that they have existed in their life forever.”

He wants the public to see his photos of the tribes, even if they’re not at the Schack. So he has reached out to other galleries.

“A show of Indigenous people taken by an older white American psychiatrist is going to be biased based on my own history and background,” Fink said. “But it would be biased based on anybody’s history and background, including if it was an Indigenous person. We all see things from a different point of view. As long as you point that out, it’s all you can do.”

The Racing to Equity consultant, Ruiz, asked the Schack whether tribal elders consented to having photos taken and exhibited, whether the photographer was an anthropologist aware of “how to work with tribes in a way that maintains their sovereignty and dignity,” and whether the tribes were being compensated.

Fink isn’t an anthropologist. But he argued you don’t need a Ph.D. to do this kind of work. He said the Schack team didn’t talk to him about Ruiz’s recommendations. He said he meets most, if not all, of the criteria to show respect to Indigenous peoples.

“I wanted to do the right thing,” Fink said. “The Schack didn’t know that. They didn’t ask. It bothers me that they never checked to see if I fit this criteria.”

Tuohy said Schack leaders still hope to move forward with Fink as Artist of the Year. The exhibit should be ready in 2022, but she’s not sure if the focus will be Indigenous peoples.

“That,” she said, “will be determined between him, gallery staff and a cultural representative or expert, if needed — if that’s the way the exhibit goes.”

Sara Bruestle: Twitter: @sarabruestle.

Rachel Riley: 425-339-3465; Twitter: @rachel_m_riley.

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