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This Sunday, December 9, activist coalition Decolonize This Place will lead an action at the Whitney Museum of American Art in response to news that one of the museum’s vice chairmen, Warren Kanders, is the owner of defense corporation Safariland. The corporation was revealed as the manufacturer providing tear gas to US Customs and Border Protection officers deploying tear gas on asylum seekers at the US–Mexico border on November 25.
Decolonize This Place and other New York City activist coalitions will gather at the Whitney in solidarity with the near 100 museum employees who penned a letter to the museum’s administration addressing their distress, providing a set of demands to the museum requesting “the development and distribution of a clear policy around Trustee participation.” The action is being organized autonomous from, but in solidarity with the Whitney staffers.
Artists involved with Decolonize This Place have crafted a set of protest art riffing off of Warhol’s Death and Disaster series — prints appropriating images of violent catastrophes and tragic accidents. (On November 27, Hyperallergic reported that Kanders is a “significant contributor” in the popular Andy Warhol exhibition at the Whitney, From A to B and Back Again.) Rather than Warhol’s iterations of Jackie O after the assassination of JFK, they appropriated photographs of Safariland’s tear gas canisters and images of activists barraged by smoke at Standing Rock.
On December 3, Adam Weinberg, the Alice Pratt Brown Director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, released a statement addressed to museum staff and trustees, writing, “Even as we are idealistic and missionary in our belief in artists — as established by our founder Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney — the Whitney is first and foremost a museum. It cannot right all the ills of an unjust world, nor is that its role. Yet, I contend that the Whitney has a critical and urgent part to play in making sure that unheard and unwanted voices are recognized.”
In response, Decolonize This Place detailed their disappointment in the museum’s reaction on the action’s Facebook event, writing:
“We commend the efforts of the Whitney staff, and recognize the courage displayed and the risk they have taken in organizing and speaking out. This Sunday, we will assemble with our friends, families, and communities to make it known that as broad public stakeholders in the Whitney, we too refuse to tolerate the presence of Kanders on the board of the museum. Many of us, our families, and our communities here and abroad have been on the receiving end of the products made and marketed by Safariland and its numerous subsidiaries like Defense Technology. We consider Weinberg’s apparent decision to stand with Kanders a line in the sand. That line is unacceptable to us, and now the entire institution of the Whitney faces a broad crisis of legitimacy.
Weinberg celebrates the museum as a ‘safe space for unsafe ideas.’ Yet by standing with Kanders and Safariland, he affirms that the museum is a safe space for those profiteering from state repression, settler colonialism, white supremacy, and anti-black violence. These are the forces that create systematic unsafety and perpetuate death in the very communities the museum claims to serve, communities to which many staff at the Whitney belong … We have a responsibility to hold all of our institutions accountable, including the Whitney Museum. After much deliberation, reach outs, and consultation with collaborators, we are putting out this City-Wide Call. This is the beginning. See you in front of the Whitney Museum.”