The Whitney’s Dilemma

The Whitney has not had the moral courage to reject support from a benefactor who generated his wealth in socially irresponsible ways.

Activists from Decolonize This Place gathered at The Whitney Museum’s entrance on December 9 (photo by Ashoka Jegroo/Hyperallergic)

To paraphrase Kermit the Frog, it’s not easy being a museum. Society honors museums as quasi-sacred spaces, repositories devoted to our loftiest values. Yet museums survive only with the help of wealthy individuals and institutions whose values, in some cases, are far from lofty. The Museum of Modern Art was launched in the late 1920s with money amassed by John D. Rockefeller, possibly the most rapacious of the robber barons. In 1994, the Metropolitan Museum presented The Origins of Impressionism, a praiseworthy exhibition. Not so praiseworthy was the source of the exhibition’s funding: the Phillip Morris Company, which contributed tens of millions of dollars to arts organizations in the hope of softening public disapproval of tobacco, its main product. Moral conflict lurks in the workings of every major museum, and recently it broke out full force at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

To recap: On November 30, an open letter signed by more than 100 members of the Whitney’s staff demanded that Warren Kanders be removed from the museum’s board of directors. Their demand was prompted by Jasmine Weber’s article, published on Hyperallergic on November 27, reporting that tear gas cannisters and smoke grenades used against migrants at the southern border bore the logos of Safariland and Defense Technology — companies owned by Kanders, who is vice-chairman of the Whitney board and a primary contributor to the museum’s current Andy Warhol exhibition. Weber noted also that weapons manufactured by Safariland have been vital to the militarization of police forces in Baltimore, Oakland, and Ferguson, Missouri. The Whitney staff stated in their letter, “We read the Hyperallergic article and felt not annoyed, not intellectually upset — we felt sick to our stomachs, we shed tears, we felt unsafe.”

Why the visceral reaction? Because, the letter continued, “many of us are deeply connected to the communities that are being directly impacted and targeted by the teargassing at the border.” Thus “many of us feel the violence inflicted upon the refugees — and against mostly POC-protesters in Ferguson and mostly-Indigenous protesters of the Dakota Access Pipeline, just two of many other instances of militarized tear gassing of unarmed citizens — much more personally than it seems to affect leadership.” Museum employees are not naïve. They know that their employers are not motivated solely by a love of art. To sustain a large and ambitious art institution, certain compromises must be made. But Kanders’s role in events at the border, in Ferguson, and elsewhere have generated a conflict of values so extreme that Whitney staffers could not stay silent. After calling for Kanders’s removal from the museum’s board, they demanded a response from “leadership.”

Adam Weinberg, the Whitney’s director, replied on December 3 in a letter full of placating talk about “our community,” “shared commitment,” “hopes and dreams,” “openness and independence,” and the like. He listed several of the Whitney’s recent admirable exhibitions: David Wojnarowicz, Zoe Leonard, Mary Corse, Nick Mauss, and Warhol. He then asserted the need for a rigid hierarchy: leadership above and staff below. “We each have our critical and complementary roles,” wrote Weinberg. “Trustees do not hire staff, select exhibitions, organize programs, or make acquisitions, and staff does not appoint or remove board members.” We might note, in passing, a bit of disingenuousness, as Weinberg asks us to believe that the content of a trustee’s collection has never affected the Whitney’s exhibition schedule. More to the present point, the director let it be known that Kanders is here to stay. Forget about his removal. It’s not going to happen. This is a new instance of an old and seemingly intractable stalemate. There would not be much more to say if Kanders himself had not brought the situation into sharp focus.

In statement published on the ArtNews website, Kanders itemizes some of the products manufactured by his company, Safariland — safety holsters, body armor, and tear gas among them. He then says:

The staff letter implies that I am responsible for the decision to use these products. I am not. That is not an abdication of responsibility, it is an acknowledgement of reality. We sell products to government institutions, domestically and internationally, all of which must be certified to purchase and use these products.

This makes sense if we accept the principle that corporations are morally neutral: exempt from reproach if they do nothing explicitly prohibited by law. Logically indefensible, this neutrality principle can be defended only as a self-evident premise, a truth armored by its obviousness against any and all objections. The contrary principle — that corporations are morally responsible for the use of their products — likewise rests not on logical argument but on a devotion to certain values. This means that we who believe Kanders is in the wrong cannot prove it. All we can do is appeal to the social value of corporate responsibility and to underlying values of fairness, generosity, and common decency.

Adam Weinberg’s response makes it clear that he subscribes to the principle of corporate neutrality, which frees the Whitney to welcome any art-loving corporate executive as a donor or board member no matter how morally dubious his or her business may be. In taking this position, Weinberg presents himself as a realist willing to acknowledge “all the ills of an unjust world,” as he calls them. However, he says, the Whitney cannot be expected to right these wrongs. This is evasive. No one has accused the Whitney of failing to right all the world’s ills. By responding to a charge the Whitney staffers did not make, Weinberg sidesteps one they did make: that the museum has not had the moral courage to reject support from a benefactor who generated his wealth in socially irresponsible ways: by supplying municipal police with the means to deploy military tactics against minority groups, for example. This militarization is among the “ills of an unjust world”; and Weinberg is saying in effect that the Whitney must be complicit in such injustice to maintain its donor base and attract high-ranking corporate officers to its board. There is no good reason to believe this.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, American corporations made an aggressive point of announcing their sense of social responsibility. During the war, soldiers, sailors, and their officers struggled in unison to defeat the Axis powers. On the home front, workers and management joined the effort. With peace restored, corporate executives and their spokespeople declared that the wartime spirit of cooperation and responsibility to elevated values must continue. To some extent it did. During the 1950s and ’60s, American corporations typically showed a willingness to abide by government regulations, to negotiate in good faith with unions, and to consider the well-being of the surrounding community. The result of this good behavior was prosperity widespread enough to raise millions of Americans from poverty to the middle class. In the early 1970s, the picture changed. The ideal of the good corporate citizen faded, replaced by a new ideal: the corporation geared up to maximize profits. This new model produced a drastically revised idea of corporate responsibility. Management was now expected to fight regulation, undermine unions, and reduce wages whenever possible, even if it meant relocating factories overseas.

If the sole purpose of a corporation is to maximize profits, its indifference to the needs of society is not merely justified. It is required, and this requirement is dictated by the “reality” Kanders invokes in defense of Safariland. But his “reality” is a fiction, the product of a morally inadequate doctrine. As the history of the 1950s and ’60s shows, moral neutrality is not built into to the concept of the corporation. This history demonstrates further that a company’s success does not require it to be indifferent to the best interests of society. Likewise, museums do not need to share this neutrality with prospective corporate donors. In his reply to the Whitney staff’s anguished letter, Adam Weinberg describes the museum as a place where “unheard and unwanted voices are recognized.” It is “through our openness and independence,” he says, that “we can foreground often marginalized, unconventional and seemingly unacceptable ideas not presented in other sites in our culture.” This proclamation implies that the Whitney has a responsibility to all of society. Yet this responsibility will be unmet if the museum continues to count figures like Kanders among its patrons. I am not saying that Kanders has no genuine interest in art. What I am saying is that he and others use art to clean up their morally questionable images. Until museums stop accepting support from donors like these — donors whose values do not measure up to the institutions’ highest ideals — we will be forced to see Weinberg and other museum directors as facilitating a widespread scheme of image laundering.

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