The Decolonize This Place movement is calling for continued action against the Whitney Museum after news that one of the institution’s vice chairs owns Safariland, which is a manufacturer that was supplying tear gas to border authorities that gassed a group of migrants last month. The issue, first reported by Hyperallergic, has caused a wave of protest and guerrilla actions across the city.
On Sunday, December 9, dozens of protesters occupied the lobby of the Manhattan museum, chanting “Fire! Fire! Fire to the colonizers!” while they burned sage and unfurled banners. A few days later artist Rafael Shimunov staged his own quiet protest on the walls of the museum. Other actions in New York City subway stations and elsewhere have also taken place.
The newest letter, published in its entirety below, is calling for a #J26 town hall assembly on January 26, while emphasizing solidarity with museum staff and the “conspicuous silence from many artists, curators, historians, and critics, including those whose work is celebrated for its engagement with themes of politics, social practice, racial justice, and even institutional critique.”
The group seems adamant in their refusal to accept that this type of arts patronage is acceptable, and they focus on the “art-washing industrial complex of contemporary art.” They write:
“Maybe when Kanders, his ilk, and their money are gone, the museum does indeed look like a very different place with a very different system of accounts. A place, for instance, run by and for cultural workers and their communities as a cooperative platform rather than a money-laundering operation for the ultra-wealthy. A place that de-centers whiteness and dismantles patriarchy. A place that acknowledges that it stands on occupied indigenous territory, and takes reparative measures. A place that provides sanctuary and self-defense from ICE. A place that repurposes the remnants of luxury infrastructure in order to build power and make art with and for the people. A place that is hospitable to the healing energies of sage rather than a refuge for tear-gas profiteers. A place that is built on radical love and relationships of care. A place that understands that conflicts can be points of construction. A place, in other words, that is undergoing a process of decolonization.”
The question of decolonization and museums has been a hot button topic in the art community for decades, but contemporary art museums were often being ignored as activists focused on historical objects that were looted during colonization. In the last decade, those involved with decolonization have been more engaged with contemporary arts patronage, particularly “art-washing,” which can be used to describe the use of art by wealthy patrons to mask more sinister motivations and goals, such as the use of art and affiliated businesses and institutions to make gentrification more palatable and attractive to a broad public.
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The complete statement by Decolonize This Place:
The Crisis of the Whitney Is Just Beginning
To the Whitney Museum: your crisis is just beginning.
To the Whitney Staff: we send our love and support.
To everyone who feels a stake in the crisis of the Whitney: join us for a Town Hall Assembly on January 26.
Like many of you reading this letter, we work precarious jobs. We struggle to pay bills. We are in debt. We have families and friends to take care of. We are dealing with physical and emotional unwellness. We are working every day with our communities to build movements capable of combating the forces not simply of Trumpism, but of settler-colonization, capitalism, white supremacy, and heteropatriarchy for which Trump is only a morbid and glaring symptom. Yet faced with the deafening public silence concerning the current crisis of the Whitney Museum — both from the museum and from leading voices in the artworld — we feel the need to make this statement. After the courageous letter written by staff calling for the removal of Safariland owner and CEO Warren Kanders from the board of the Whitney, and the action undertaken by Decolonize This Place and its collaborators on December 9th to amplify that demand, we write today in a spirit of both radical honesty and critical generosity to ask: what will it take for others to stand, speak, and act in order to force the Whitney to reverse its current course?
On December 9th, Decolonize This Place and collaborators assembled at the Whitney to the demand the removal of Warren B. Kanders from the board of the museum. Kanders is the CEO Safariland, a manufacturer “law enforcement products” including the tear gas used against migrant families at the US-Mexico border, as well as demonstrators in Ferguson, Standing Rock, Oakland, and Palestine. Our action was autonomous from, but in solidarity with, a letter signed one week earlier at great personal risk by 100 staffers from the Whitney itself calling for the removal of Kanders. When the museum director Adam Weinberg made it clear that he would disregard the concerns of staffers and would be standing with Kanders, we expected an outcry from the progressive sectors of the artworld. The sectors, for instance, that two years earlier had gathered for the high-profile J20 Anti-Fascist Speak-Out at the Whitney on the day Trump was inaugurated. But when no response was forthcoming, we felt the need to act. Like many staff members, many of us who participated in the December 9th action come from communities on the receiving end of Kanders’ weapons. Indigenous people; Black people; Latinx people; Asian people; Palestinian people; undocumented people; queer people; trans people; dispossessed people; displaced people, precarious people: in other words, people struggling on a daily basis against the forces exemplified by Kanders. Against the toxic clouds of teargas brought into the world by Safariland, we burned sage inside the lobby. “Teargas is poison. Sage is Medicine,” announced one of our speakers. The sweet smoke lingered in the museum for days, a potent reminder that the crisis first activated by the staff with their courageous letter had only just begun.
2. Museum Still Silent.
Two weeks since the action, the museum still refuses to publicly respond. Given the backfiring of Weinberg’s last public pronouncement, the current strategy is apparently to lay low and pretend nothing happened in the hopes that it will blow over during the holidays — even as it creates an atmosphere of intimidation for workers who have spoken out.
3. Artworld Still Silent.
Following the staff letter, the statement from Weinberg, and ultimately our action of December 9th, we had expected a tipping point of outrage and a clear-eyed amplification on the part of the progressive sectors of the artworld of the staffers’ demand: Kanders must go. Yet, with several important exceptions, there has been a conspicuous silence from many artists, curators, historians, and critics, including those whose work is celebrated for its engagement with themes of politics, social practice, racial justice, and even institutional critique. We imagined that folks who make their living by examining things like militarized borders, police brutality, political protest, and indeed the structures of oppression at work in the modern museum, would spring into action. But instead, we largely hear crickets on social media, on websites, in list serves, and academic departments. We feel this silence is not a matter of callous indifference. Instead, it is a sign that powerful people are shaken by the profound contradiction that is finally coming to a head between the purported values of contemporary art and the violent profiteering that subtends most of the major institutions of the art system.
4. Concerns and Truisms.
In private, we hear questions, concerns, and truisms: Why the Whitney, the most progressive of all museums? Why not focus on Kanders himself rather than the museum? Isn’t all money in the art world tainted at some level? Are you naive? Don’t you realize that this is how the world works? Would you have us bite the hand that feeds us? Where do you draw the line? Can we not make good with the bad? What would we do without money like that given by Kanders? How would the museum continue to function? How would there even be art without the these necessary but unfortunate ties to the 1%? Do you want us to lose other donors? Do you want Weinberg to lose his job? What about all the good he has done?
5. Kanders is the Tip of the Iceberg.
People understand that Kanders is the tip of the iceberg, and that if taken to its logical conclusion, the normal order of business, power, and privilege in the art system is put at risk. The letter from the staff and the action of December 9th show that cultural workers and our communities are refusing the normalization of not just Kanders, but of the entire settler-institutional nexus of art, capitalism, patriarchy and white supremacy for which he stands. We can no longer accept the artworld logic of career over cause, with artists and critics making politically engaged work against the backdrop of an institutional framework grounded in the artwashing of profits for figures like Kanders, but also David W. Carey, another Whitney board member who is former executive director of the CIA and currently CEO of military contractor Oracle. Inaction with respect to the art-washing industrial complex of contemporary art makes our field complicit with death, disaster, and destruction. We also understand this goes far beyond the Whitney. Guggenheim. Brooklyn Museum. New Museum. Metropolitan. MoMA. And make no mistake: real estate moguls and tech giants are no better to us than Kanders.
6. These Contradictions Are Not New.
We acknowledge a long legacy of artists and collectives who have worked to confront these contradictions. We look especially to the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition and Black Women Artists and Students for Black Liberation, who called for a fundamental dismantling of the capitalist, racist, and patriarchal underpinnings of the museum, and a redistribution of its resources and infrastructures. The contradictions such groups activated in the late 1960s have only sharpened since then.
7. De-normalization and Re-imagination.
To de-normalize the situation exemplified by Kanders requires us to break the block imposed on our imagination when we are told “be realistic! be reasonable! This is just how things are!” It requires us to reimagine what an art institution could be and whom it is meant to serve. What else is possible, beyond the untenable situation we have today? The museum as we know is a settler-institution that has monopolized the definition of art. It has brought with it an entire division of labor to enforce this definition, the kind Weinberg invokes when he tells his staff to play their roles and stay in their lanes. Maybe when Kanders, his ilk, and their money are gone, the museum does indeed look like a very different place with a very different system of accounts. A place, for instance, run by and for cultural workers and their communities as a cooperative platform rather than a money-laundering operation for the ultra-wealthy. A place that de-centers whiteness and dismantles patriarchy. A place that acknowledges that it stands on occupied indigenous territory, and takes reparative measures. A place that provides sanctuary and self-defense from ICE. A place that repurposes the remnants of luxury infrastructure in order to build power and make art with and for the people. A place that is hospitable to the healing energies of sage rather than a refuge for tear-gas profiteers. A place that is built on radical love and relationships of care. A place that understands that conflicts can be points of construction. A place, in other words, that is undergoing a process of decolonization.
7. Asking Better Questions. We do not presume to answer the questions above as to what a post-Kanders museum would look like. That can and will be determined in the course of collective discussion, struggle and experimentation. But we do know that the current situation with Kanders is unacceptable, and that the crisis is set to escalate. Even the gesture itself of publicly standing against Kanders inaugurated by the Whitney staff has already helped us all to ask better questions of the world we inhabit.
8. A Call for #J26.
We thus call upon all individuals and communities who feel a stake in the current crisis of the Whitney to assemble on January 26th with location in Manhattan to be announced. The event will be a forum not only for the expression of grievances, but also for practical planning in terms of how to best achieve the goal of removing Kanders from the board of the Whitney through a diversity of tactics and strategies, while at the same time forming new relationships and solidarities for actions in 2019 surrounding the Whitney Biennial and beyond that the city at large.
9. In the Meantime.
We have intentionally called for this event to take place more than a month from now. We hope that a lot will happen in the intervening weeks. Perhaps more autonomous art-actions will take place at the museum. The Whitney and its board of directors could make the right call any day now, and remove Kanders based on the crisis as it has developed so far. Staff may come out in force with another letter, actions, or even a strike. We wonder what the curators of the 2019 Whitney Biennale have planned, as well as the artists on the Biennale list. Friends of the Whitney, from progressive board members, to artists, to the Whitney Independent Study Program, to historians and critics, may also initiate their own series of responses. Op-eds, petitions, boycotts, even a de-occupation? All this would be welcomed. Whatever happens in the coming month, the J26 town hall will be a place for all to gather, assess, pressure the Whitney to do the right thing, as we build power together.
10. 2019 is Coming.
We end this statement by amplifying the basic demand that the Whitney staff made in their letter at great personal and professional risk to themselves. Warren Kanders must go. We say to the museum: we have heard from reliable sources that you are trying to intimidate the staff in ways implicit and explicit, e.g. screenshotting social media accounts of staff and reporting them to department heads. We say to the staff: we are here to listen, to think together, and collaborate to counter the museum’s environment of fear and intimidation, as we share our desires, visions, and plans. The crisis you have brought into the open brings with it old questions with deep implications for our communities and movements. This is why we insist that Kanders is but a symptom of a fundamental structural crisis for the art system, and that the removal of Kanders must be understood as but one step in a broader process of decolonization.
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