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“The Institution Should Not Be Safe As Long As We Are Not Safe”: A Third Week of Protests at the Whitney

One activist called the protest an opportunity for museumgoers to consider “the role that our cultural institutions play in our everyday decisions and choices, and the effect that that has.”

Week three of Decolonize This Place’s “Nine Weeks of Art and Action” (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

“Fuck your post-modernism,” a protester yelled in the lobby of the Whitney Museum on Friday night. It was a critique not only of the art in the museum’s recent Andy Warhol exhibit, but of how it was funded, with money from the Whitney’s Vice-Chair Warren B. Kanders, CEO of Safariland a defense weapons manufacturer whose tear gas was used at Standing Rock, on the US-Mexico border last summer, and just recently against Palestinians in Gaza.   

It was the third installment of Nine Weeks of Art and Action, a series of weekly protests organized by Decolonize This Place and over 30 other art and social justice groups, leading up to the Whitney Biennial, to demand that the museum remove Kanders from their Board of Directors.

Protesters assembled in a circle carrying bright banners in oranges, greens, and reds with messages like “ABOLISH WHITE SUPREMACY”; “WHO PROFITS FROM THE TEAR GAS AT THE WHITNEY”; and “WHITNEY MUSEUM: NO SPACE FOR PROFITEERS OF STATE VIOLENCE.”

Members of Decolonial Time Zone, a group of students from New York University, The New School, The School of Visual Arts, among others, began the event by telling the growing crowd that they were there to “[hold] our institutions accountable for colonial violence,” adding that “the institution should not be safe as long as we are not safe.”

As they spoke, other activists passed out copies of an open letter signed by over 120 art theorists, critics, and scholars, echoing the protesters demands that Kanders be removed from the board and that the Whitney, and all museums, begin painful but necessary examinations of where the funding comes from, how that funding is made, and who suffers because of it. The goal for week three was delivering, via the Head of Security, individually addressed copies of the letter to all sixty Whitney Board members.

A family protesting Warren Kanders position as a vice chairman at the Whitney Museum of Art (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

In comparison to the previous weeks’s protests, there were fewer formal speeches from specific groups. “The energy is weird,” artist and Decolonize This Place organizer Amin Husain explained. “We’re hurting.”

He explained that their continued presence is already bringing change, that museums “are used to thinking this is a PR problem. They’re being held accountable and they’re not used to it.”

Alicia Grullon, an artist, organizer, and representative of the People’s Cultural Plan told Hyperallergic that her goal for museumgoers is “Waking people up from their slumber, from this forced state we’ve been put in where we’re not acknowledging the world around us, the absence of getting involved in critical issues that are facing us today.”

She continued, “As artists, we’ve been trained to keep politics out of our art. But for museumgoers coming to this museum on this free day, it is a chance for them to start to draw the connections between their visit here, the role that our cultural institutions play in our everyday decisions and choices, and the effect that that has.”

Protesters holding an “Abolish White Supremacy” sign (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

Museum visitors were largely receptive, stopping to talk about the letter and ask questions about Warren Kanders.

Anaïs Castro, a curator and art critic based Berlin told Hyperallergic “I do support the efforts of decolonizing art institutions, and I wanted to see how this particular group was going about that.” She added, “There hasn’t been a lot of institutional critique in Germany, and I think it is an essential part of today’s world. It’s a little early to tell, but I like what I see so far.”

As in previous weeks, the protesters took pains not to create extra work for museum staff, emphasizing that the issue is with the the director and the trustees, not the people working late on a Friday night to give visitors a positive experience. Still, Hussain cautioned, “sometimes protests are inconvenient.”

The Whitney has declined to comment.

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