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Warren Kanders and Allison Kanders at the inaugural Whitney Collection Award in 2016 (Photo by Patrick Mcmullan/PMC © Patrick McMullan)

After months of protest, an emerging biennial boycott, and an accusation of war crimes, Warren Kanders has resigned from his position as vice chairman of the Whitney Museum of American Art’s board of trustees.

“The targeted campaign of attacks against me and my company that has been waged these past several months has threatened to undermine the important work of the Whitney,” said Kanders in his resignation letter to the board, according to the New York Times. “I joined this board to help the museum prosper. I do not wish to play a role, however inadvertent, in its demise.”

Last year, Hyperallergic broke the story about Kanders, which tied the Whitney to weapons manufacturing. The now-former vice chairman owns Safariland, a company that produces military supplies like tear gas, which has been hurled at migrants at the United-States–Mexico border and elsewhere during protests. He also partially owns Sierra Bullets, which the collective Forensic Architecture alleges may be involved in lethal war crimes by the Israeli army against Palestinian civilians at the border in Gaza.

As news of the artist boycott broke last Friday, the uprising against Kanders threatened to spill into mainstream media with concentrated attention by national outlets like NPR and the New York Times. For months prior, a grassroots coalition led by the activist group Decolonize This Place staged nine weeks of protests at the museum and other demonstrations, keeping the Kanders issue at the fore of art world conversation.

Kanders joined the Whitney board in 2006 and has been on the executive committee for five years, donating more than $10 million alongside his wife, Allison, who has simultaneously resigned from the museum’s painting and sculpture committee. There is a stairway at the museum named after the couple who are also avid collectors of art from blue-chip names like Jeff Koons, Christopher Wool, and Ed Ruscha.

Protests began in November when more than 100 staff members signed a letter demanding the museum respond to the Hyperallergic report linking Kanders to the US-Mexico border crisis. Museum director Adam Weinberg responded to the controversy, stating in part that the Whitney “cannot right all the ills of an unjust world, nor is that its role” and that the institution must stay “a safe place for unsafe ideas.”

Kanders responded with his own letter to staff in December. “I am not the problem,” he wrote. “We also manufacture the non-lethal products that started this discussion, including what is commonly known as tear gas. Non-lethal products were created as an alternative to lethal solutions.” At the time, the former vice chair’s connection to Sierra Bullets had not been reported by media outlets.

That month, Michael Rakowitz became the only artist to preemptively pull out of the 2019 Whitney Biennial. Four months later, a group of critics, scholars, and artists called for Kanders’s removal — including many artists presenting work in the biennial.

Last week, four artists (Korakrit Arunanondchai, Meriem Bennani, Nicole Eisenman, and Nicholas Galanin) withdrew from the exhibition in a letter published by Artforum, asking the Whitney to remove their work from the biennial. Four others joined the emerging boycott, creating a tipping point for the institution that threatened to overshadow the work of curators Rujeko Hockley, Jane Panetta, and the more than 60 remaining artists.

Until recently, the controversy had done little to shake Kanders’s position at the museum. He was unanimously reappointed vice chair last month, according to the New York Times. But some on the board debated his position with the museum. Some thought he should have quit for the good of the museum while others believed that stepping down would embolden protesters to call for more resignations of board members with ties to other unsavory business investments.

The hedge fund billionaire Kenneth C. Griffin — whose name adorns the Whitney’s lobby — is one of the trustees named in the report linked above. Earlier today, the Times reported that Griffin had resigned from the Whitney board in counterprotest, lamenting what he called the museum’s left-wing tilt. But the CEO apparently reconsidered and is staying onboard.

“I’m a trustee of the Whitney and excited to be on the board,” he said in a telephone interview with the publication on Thursday evening. When pressed about what had transpired earlier in the day, Mr. Griffin said, “I think board conversations are private,” adding, “I haven’t resigned.”

He also said, “all cultural institutions in the United States should be places of open dialogue.”

In 2018, the billionaire used $2 million of his fortune to fund DefendArizona, a super PAC advocating for a strong military and strong borders. The committee backs Senator Martha McSally (R-AZ), who co-authored the 2018 immigration bill “Securing America’s Future Act.” The legislation, which ultimately failed in the House, would have authorized the federal government “to design, test, construct, install, deploy, and operate physical barriers, tactical infrastructure, and technology” along the US-Mexico border. It also would have called for additional investments in infrastructure at the ports of entry and for the hiring of 10,000 border agents and customs officers. When it was announced, critics predicted that the bill would have criminalized all undocumented immigrants, kept families apart, eliminated protection for Dreamers, and end protections for asylum-seekers including vulnerable children.

Through his company, Griffin also has a stake in private prisons. Citadel is a majority shareholder in CoreCivic, a company that owns and manages private prisons and detention centers. Contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) compose 25 percent of the company’s business model. More than two-thirds of all immigration detainees are held by private prison companies like CoreCivic and GEO Group. In 2014, the federal government granted CoreCivic a four-year, $1 billion no-bid contract to run a family detention center in Dilley, Texas. Last summer, the facility held about 2,000 people; it can hold 2,400 detainees and the company gets paid in full even when the beds are empty. One day after Trump won the 2016 presidential election, CoreCivic’s stock increased by 43 percent. The company later gave the administration’s inaugural committee $250,000.

Ken Griffin and Anne Dias Griffin at the Whitney Museum of American Art’s “American Art Award” event in 2007 (Photo by Joe Schildhorn/PMC © Patrick McMullan)

“The politicized and oftentimes toxic environment in which we find ourselves across all spheres of public discourse, including the art community, puts the work of this board in great jeopardy,” wrote Kanders in his resignation letter.

The letter makes it unclear whether or not Kanders is leaving the Whitney Museum on the best of terms. He writes: “I hope you assume the responsibility that your position bestows upon you and find the leadership to maintain the integrity of this museum.”

In a statement sent to Hyperallergic, Whitney director Adam D. Weinberg responded to Kanders’s resignation, saying:

Warren and Allison Kanders have been unwavering in their commitment to this institution, including a generous lead gift toward the Museum’s building project. The Whitney’s groundbreaking Warhol exhibition and the past exhibitions of the works of Laura Owens, Jeff Koons and Wade Guyton, among others, were in part made possible thanks to their support. As Director, I am very grateful.

In the same statement, the board expressed its “profound gratitude to Warren and Allison Kanders for their extraordinary generosity, and its deep appreciation for their dedication to the Whitney Museum of American Art and their part in helping to secure the long-term future of the Museum.”

Update 7/25/19 2:22pm: This article has been updated to include statements from Adam D. Weinberg and the Whitney board of trustees.

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Zachary Small

Zachary Small was the senior writer at Hyperallergic and has written for The New York Times, The Financial Times, The Nation, The Times Literary Supplement, Artforum, and other publications. They have...

38 replies on “Warren Kanders Resigns From Whitney Museum Board After Months of Controversy and Protest [UPDATED]”

  1. Artists and museums have depended upon wealthy patrons for centuries. Where will this end? I am not a fan of Kanders or lethal weaponry however this is a slippery slope: how to find a wealthy patron who has absolutely no ties to anything dubious? This is capitalism. Unfortunately art and capitalism in our system are intricately linked. How much government support for the arts do we get in the USA? Even were it so, our government is not innocent of wrong doing!! I support the artist boycott, but can’t help thinking about the underlying problem.

    1. Ah Joanne, your argument that by default justifies individuals generating huge amounts of income for themselves by doing no good, and then laundering that money through cultural institutions, hospitals, universities etc. demonstrates no imagination or vision for the future on your part and an inescapable support for what is a busted status quo. Both philanthropy and tax payer funded income streams are already vulnerable and will only become more so. Some institutions are now dreaming of a new holy grail, ‘non-volatile audience driven income’. The only problem with this is no current leadership has been brave or innovative sufficiently to define let alone implement this. Luckily for all parties some of us have evolved initiatives redefining the income model of the public museum and are now wanting to evolve dialogues with enlightened leaders. Its only a matter of time … public museums will be stronger, more relevant, less white and financially secure in the (near) future liberated from the demands of philanthropists – or at least able to set the due diligence bar much higher – and unenlightened central and local government entities.

      1. Thank you for your condescending reply. Sounds good. Good luck with that!
        Sadly I lack the imagination to envision such a future for public instituions. I’m guessing that some of the more wealthy taxpayers that support the public institution where I work are not 100% pure…..What to do about that?
        Since when does acknowledging the “status quo” mean one “justifies” it. There is nothing in my comment that implies support of Kanders’ businesses or any other.
        I will agree that the Whiney needs to do a better job vetting and will most likely in future based upon the Kanders uproar. Probably there’ll be spill over into other museums. I never believed the protests were in vain – that was not the point of my comment.

    2. What “lethal weaponry,” Joanne Tear gas replaced lethal bullets! Ever hear of the Kent State massacre? You wouldn’t have if they had used tear gas.

          1. Uh, what if those who misuse them are contracting with his company to provide them to them for misuse? You’re gonna give him the moral pass there? Would you give the moral pass to the manufacturer of slave irons and torture devices who doesn’t own slaves but sells them to slave-owners who use them?

          2. What fraction would you find objectionable? Or like what fraction of protesters would need to be shot for you to want him off the board? Also: it doesn’t appear that these products are being “misused.” They seem to be used exactly as intended.

        1. You don’t think Whitney security guards have bullets in their guns?! #Kanderslynch = anti-Semitism

          1. Armed security guards in the U.S. would not have opened-tip bullets, designed to shred human flesh, like those produced by Sierra Bullets and sold to the Israeli military to use on Palestinian children, women, and men.

            Opposition to repression, subjugation, and ethnic cleansing ≠ anti-Semitism

          2. Guards at the Whitney typically don’t carry guns. But also Whitney guards are not suppressing democratic movements in Venezuela, Egypt, Bahrain, Puerto Rico, and so on, which are all places where corrupt and undemocratic governments have used Safariland weapons and are all places that Safariland *chooses* to sell weapons. It’s not as though they sold weapons *and then* found out that the Maduro government is despicable. In fact, dictators want weapons to use against their people, and Safariland is happy to sell them.

            There are other Jewish board members who are not being criticized and do not have protesters demanding that they step down, because those board members do not sell weapons to autocrats for a living. Kanders is not being protested because he’s Jewish. He’s being pressured because he’s an arms dealer.

    3. Yes, but should wealthy war profiteers be allowed to cloak themselves in respectability through their associations with cultural institutions, and never have to answer for the role they play in human suffering around the world? If they are gonna engage in that nasty business, then the public and artists have all the right in the world to shine a light on it.

  2. Shame on you Whitney Museum for desecrating the purity of art with an obviously orchestrated witchhunt! And how Kafkaesque that Kanders’ “sinful” product, tear gas, is actually responsible for saving the lives of large numbers of progressive activists! Do you know what riot police use when they don’t have access to tear gas? Ever hear of the Kent State massacre? Thirteen unarmed anti-Vietnam protesters were shot, four fatally.

    The leader of this witchhunt, Amin Husain, told ArtNews that the campaign against Kanders was part of “the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement in the art world.” This has nothing to do with tear gas manufacture; Kanders was targeted because he is pro-Israel! BDS is banned in many states as an anti-Semitic movement. BDS now has a new tactic of personally targeting any prominent Jew who dares speak in favor of Israel, and this should scare every lover of free speech. The National Socialists used exactly the same tactic initially.

    1. Artists are the essence and the heart of a museum ,the Admin & financial board is not.
      For ethical reaons The Whintey Museum’s management should never have accepted 1 cent of M.Kanders’money.It was morally wrong in the 1st place.

      1. Museum directors readily whore themselves and their institutions to those who have money. And those who get their money through unseemly ways, like Kanders and Griffin, are looking for cultural institutions to whore themselves to them because it gives them cover (not to mention tax benefits) and “respectabilty” as they get to hob nob at Galas and get written about in the paper as patrons, while they make a fortunate in blood money.

    2. It can also be seen as targeting a war profiteer, no? He also makes money off of bullets designed to shred people.

        1. Armed security guards in the U.S. would not have opened-tip bullets, designed to shred human flesh, like those produced by Sierra Bullets and sold to the Israeli military to use on Palestinian children, women, and men.

  3. I wonder how much all the protestors, combined, have given to the Whitney versus the singular generosity of the Kanders? I am guessing quite a bit less. I am reminded of Martin Niemoller’s confession, “First they came for the socialists…” Only, in this case, first they came for the generous pro-Israel Jews. I hope that another, wiser, museum will be lucky enough for the Kanders to join their board. And I am thankful that their company provides life saving equipment to law enforcement, something that helps to protect the protestors.

  4. Global Observer
    Are you saying that Kander’s was not passionate about art or philanthropy but just wanted to launder his dirty money in the very obscure way of donating $10 million dollars to the Whitney? Are your idea of the is brave new type of museum is one that doesn’t care about paying the electricity or mortgage? Maybe has volunteer employees that work full time out of the goodness of art and mankind. This whole thing is a joke. If they want to protest something in NYC , Trump Tower is right down the street. Attacking liberal safe havens like the Whitney , who welcomed the protesters in the lobby is so backwards. It better not come out one day that any of these artist who pulled out has ever sold any of their art to anyone with a not so clean past. That would be the most hypocritical thing I have ever heard. But I guess now that Kander is gone their will be someone else to dethrone in order to make everyone’s lives better.

    1. Apologies for the mis-communication, if there was any, I am not in this context concerned whether someone who is laundering their money through cultural institutions is or is not passionate about art / philanthropy. Rather, the point is that these institutions are led by people who are not visionary / innovative, are inextricably hooked into the busted status quo and in turn cannot implement due diligence processes that would successfully not require their (historic) institutions / brands to be associated with individuals / foundations / corporations who in the end only diminish the value of their brands, alienate artists and audiences.
      The public museum sector has reached a watershed moment; it is now time for innovation / disruption / revolution depending on your choice of language. Either way ‘change’ is in the air.
      Our initiative will empower public museums in ways not so far imagined because of the generation of enormous amounts of ‘non-volatile audience driven income’. When implemented these institutions will be so much more liquid, so much more powerful, and indeed capable of paying everyone, including the front desk teams, the gallery attendants, bathroom cleaners, valet parking attendants all a real living wage as opposed to the current status quo – that you seem to be a little confused / ignorant of – of mass volunteerism / internships / less than living wages paid.
      Its time to be a grown up, consider everyone in our communities, look to the future as opposed to protecting and defending a busted reality.

      1. Sounds like your plan will significantly increase the price of membership and entrance fees – privileging the wealthy. Sounds like status quo. You really can’t get away from the fact that one cannot trace the source of every dollar paid/donated to a museum or any other entity. Look to the future but learn from the past.

        1. Ah Joanne, again you’re only thinking within the context of the current status quo. The concept of ‘visitor’ needs to be re-defined, the ‘audience’ needs to be re-defined. Our initiative generates such huge amounts of ‘non-volatile audience driven’ income because of a massive widening of audience with most of these individuals never necessarily visiting the physical campus. The public museum limits its potential audience by insisting they visit between 10.00 and 18.00 six days a week, maybe with a late evening! Maybe just 30% of the week and when most of us are working! Makes no sense. Our initiative, because of the huge amounts of revenue generated also enables the institution to include ethnic and socio-economic groups currently excluded and over time will start to contribute to the narrowing of the inequality of opportunity between these communities and the white community – this is currently the dominant profile of the visitor wherever the institution may be located.
          So you need to move beyond thinking of cost of ‘membership’ and ‘entrance fees’ – these are indeed signifiers of the busted status quo. Our initiative liberates the public museum, empowers the institution and its leadership and enables it to better reflect the community is sits within. No more privileging the privileged! Exciting times.

    2. Right! While we’re busy discussing this issue we have a frighteningly unfit President running amok. That is what we should all put our minds and energies on -send him back!

  5. Dude these people are complaining about “toxic discourse” when their income derives from jailing toddlers and bolstering the martial power of autocrats.

  6. Such great news! Great work! I’m sure Mr. and Mrs. Kanders will be just fine, I hope they don’t suffer too much, weep weep. Next???

  7. “The politicized and oftentimes toxic environment,” whines the war profiteer who make weapons that kill and maim people.

    Griffin should be next– war profiteers and environmental despoilers often cloak themselves in respectably through association with cultural institutions. OUT THEM ALL!

  8. Throwing Toxic gas at other human beings and yet blaming ”
    “The politicized and oftentimes toxic environment” of a Cultural & educational institutions. Right…..

  9. When you scratch just a little beneath the surface of this particular orchestrated “protest,” what you find is a lot of anti-semitism. I wonder which billionaires on various boards could be demonstrated to have fortunes that would pass this-that-and-the-other purity test? (Answer: none.) So why this particular purity test, here and now?

    1. 100% right! The ringleader of this campaign, Amin Husain, openly admitted that this was a victory for the Boycott Israel (BDS) movement. (Kanders is a pro-Israel Jew.)

    2. Many don’t share that view and understand this protest as an opposition to repression and violent subjugation, and to the war profiteers who facilitate those crimes and cloak themselves in respectability through association with cultural institutions. OUT THEM ALL.

  10. Such great insight.
    Next let’s get rid of the guy who makes airbags because people are killing innocent people with their cars. Then we will open museums up in the middle of the night and close them during the day (excluding all tourism from seeing it) so we can get rid of privileging the privileged. I met the protesters in front of the Whitney and I now see where they get their lead ship from. I bunch of whacked out wannabe artists who can’t make it in the world and blame others for it.
    Good day to you all

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