Earlier this week, eight of the 75 artists participating in the 2019 Whitney Biennial announced their intent to withdraw artwork from the galleries, citing insufficient action on behalf of the Whitney Museum of American Art to eject vice chair Warren Kanders from the board of trustees. Today, July 25, these artists told biennial curators Jane Panetta and Rujecko Hockley that, “Given today’s announcement of the resignation of Warren Kanders from the board of the Whitney Museum, we no longer request the removal of our works from the Biennial.” Kanders is connected to a number of weapons manufacturers, including Safariland, which produces tear gas that has been used in political hotbeds including Puerto Rico, Gaza, Standing Rock.
Michael Rakowitz had initially signed onto the letter, but has asked that his name be removed early in the morning on July 26 because he did not have anything in the biennial. “I did not exhibit work in the biennial, so there is nothing in my case to remove, nor restore,” he told Hyperallergic in an email, also expressing his support of the Whitney’s staff and Kanders’s resignation. “I do agree that the discussion about the future of our institutions should continue. There is so much more work to be done.”
On Thursday, July 18, Artforum published a statement by art critics Hannah Black, Ciarán Finlayson, and Tobi Haslett calling for an artist boycott to force the museum’s hand to remove Kanders from the board. The following day, artists Korakrit Arunanondchai, Meriem Bennani, Nicole Eisenman, and Nicholas Galanin published a letter requesting the withdrawal, stating that “the Museum’s continued failure to respond in any meaningful way to growing pressure from artists and activists has made our participation untenable.”
Soon after, artists Eddie Arroyo, Agustina Woodgate, and Christine Sun Kim confirmed to Hyperallergic that they had requested to have their work withdrawn from the biennial in solidarity. Forensic Architecture also announced its decision to withdraw from the biennial, planning to replace its 10-minute video about the global spread of tear gas and bullets produced by companies linked to Kanders, with new evidence they’ve found that directly links the weapons manufacturer to violence on the Israeli-Palestinian border in Gaza.
Protests against the controversial trustee had been ongoing since November, when more than 100 staff members signed a letter demanding the museum respond to the Hyperallergic article publicizing Kanders to teargassing at the US–Mexico border. In the months following, artists and activists made their objection to Kanders’s position at the Whitney clear, with activist organization Decolonize This Place staging nine weeks of protests at the museum.
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.”
This morning the New York Times broke the news that Kanders had resigned, effective immediately. In a statement to the board, he wrote: “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. I joined this board to help the museum prosper. I do not wish to play a role, however inadvertent, in its demise.”
Read the artists’ statement, provided to Hyperallergic by one of the artists, in full below:
Dear Jane and Ru,
We feel incredibly grateful to have worked with you on this exhibition and for the support you have given us throughout.
Given today’s announcement of the resignation of Warren Kanders from the board of the Whitney Museum, we no longer request the removal of our works from the Biennial.
We’d also like to thank the members of the Whitney staff who started this campaign with a courageous letter, the activists from Decolonize This Place and allies from dozens of grassroots organizations, our fellow artists that have signed letters of petitions, and those that chose to remain and resist with their art in solidarity. We feel now the discussion about the future of our institutions could start.
Christine Sun Kim