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.
“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.