Earlier this month, 120 prominent scholars and critics signed a letter titled “Kanders Must Go” demanding the removal of Warren Kanders as a vice chairman on the board of the Whitney Museum of American Art. Today, the letter was updated to include over 100 new signatures from artists, including Martha Rosler and Hito Steyerl. Almost 50 of the 75 artists participating in the anticipated 2019 Whitney Biennial have also added their support as signatories.
Warren Kanders, the owner of the defense manufacturing corporation Safariland, came under fire in late 2018 following a clash at the US–Mexico border in which US immigration officers launched Safariland-branded tear gas at asylum seekers. Safariland products have also been used in Ferguson, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Puerto Rico, and Standing Rock. The company also signed a $7.3 million contract for ballistic equipment with the New York Police Department in 2016.
“Universities and cultural institutions like the Whitney claim to be devoted to ideals of education, creativity, and dissent beyond the dictates of the market,” the letter states. “Yet, these institutions have been historically entwined with the power structures of settler colonialism, white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, and capitalism.” Those institutions, the letter continues, “provide cover for the likes of Kanders as they profit from war, state violence, displacement, land theft, mass incarceration, and climate disaster.”
Activist group Decolonize This Place (DTP) has been leading protests inside the Whitney Museum of American Art in protest of Kanders’s position on the board. The group gathers at the Whitney every Friday for their “Nine Weeks of Art and Action” protests — this past week’s action touched on Puerto Rican politics, and the one prior addressed Palestinian liberation.
DTP says its protests were inspired by a letter signed by nearly 100 employees of the museum demanding “the development and distribution of a clear policy around Trustee participation,” and for “[Whitney] leadership to convey our concerns to the Board, including that they consider asking for Warren Kanders’ resignation” along with a “public statement from the Whitney.”
The museum’s response came in the form of a letter from Adam Weinberg, the director of the Whitney. In the statement, he denounced nationalism, income inequality, racism, xenophobia, and homophobia, while asserting the museum “cannot right all the ills of an unjust world, nor is that its role.”
“Kanders Must Go,” published on the Verso blog, states that the supporting artists and academics’s aim is amplifying the staffer’s demands for ideological and financial reform at the museum.
The signatories resolve:
The Whitney and institutions like it are sites of struggle, bringing multiple stakeholders together in acts of solidarity. These new formations, in turn, flow into broader movements for freedom and justice. The demand to remove Kanders issued in the staff letter, and the subsequent mobilization by dozens of community groups for the ongoing 9 weeks of art and action, suggest that the tides are turning. Saying “no” to Kanders opens a positive opportunity to begin a deep, and long-overdue conversation about artwashing, the role of private funding in the cultural sphere, and the accountability of institutions to the communities they claim to serve.
The Whitney Museum has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.