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Decolonize This Place protest at the Whitney Museum
Decolonize This Place protest at the Whitney Museumvia Instagram (@noleavingnewyork)

Art activists demand Whitney Museum removes arms manufacturer vice-chairman

A protest staged at the New York institution coincides with an open letter from academics calling for the tear gas CEO to retire

Over 120 eminent art scholars and critics have united with activists and staff members to demand the Whitney Museum in New York removes Warren B. Kanders from the museum’s board of trustees.

Kanders, who currently serves as vice-chairman of the board, and who is a significant contributor to the Whitney’s Andy Warhol retrospective From A to B and Back Again, is the CEO of Safariland. The global defence company manufactures the tear gas canisters used by US border agents to deter migrant families at the border between Tijuana, Mexico, and San Diego, California. Tear gas is banned by several international treaties during wartime, yet governments continue to utilise the chemical weapon as a means of crowd control.  

Titled “Kanders Must Go”, the letter was published on the Verso blog. In it, prominent academics call out the hypocrisy of cultural establishments accepting funds from organisations who seek to crush the kind of freedom of expression that produces the art they showcase: “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 reads. “Yet, these institutions have been historically entwined with the power structures of settler colonialism, white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, and capitalism.”

The letter goes on to condemn art institutions’ support of corrupt benefactors, claiming they “provide cover for the likes of Kanders as they profit from war, state violence, displacement, land theft, mass incarceration, and climate disaster”.

The signatories of this letter stand in solidarity with the 95 Whitney staff members who requested the museum consider Kanders’ resignation after Hyperallergic reported his business was supplying chemical weapons to beat back migrants attempting to cross the US border. Whitney staff expressed how they felt “sick to (their) stomachs” on reading the news, and voiced their frustration on the lack of response from the museum’s leadership. “To remain silent,” their letter reads, “is to remain complicit.”

Kanders responded to a previous letter on March 30, in a statement claiming that he could not be held responsible for how clients use Safariland’s products. Although Kanders acknowledged the bravery of the staff members who voiced their concerns, he stated that his refusal to accept culpability “is not an abdication of responsibility, it is an acknowledgement of reality”.

In his statement addressed to the “Whitney Community”, Kanders called the protesters’ freedom of expression into question: “While my company and the museum have distinct missions, both are important contributors to our society. This is why I believe that the politicisation of every aspect of public life, including commercial organisations and cultural institutions, is not productive or healthy.”

But now the letter has backed the Whitney employees’ right to speak out, highlighting a long-established pattern of silencing conversations over accountability: “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 words of staff and scholars will be repurposed as art at the 2019 Whitney Biennial. Among the signatories is Eyal Wiezman of Forensic Architecture, which will participate in the event. “The efforts and actions of Decolonize This Place, WAGE, and the staff of the Whitney Museum inspired us to respond to that invitation through our contribution,” Wiezman told Hyperallergic. “The 2019 Whiteny Biennial presented us with a challenge that brings together the cultural and the political dimensions of our practice. Forensic Architecture is currently at work putting Kanders’ money to good use, preparing to present an investigation that responds to this entanglement of arms and arts.”

Friday April 5 marked the third of nine weeks of protests organised by Decolonize This Place. The activist group aims to push conversation around the controversy through a series of “art and actions”, with events planned at the Whitney every Friday in the run-up to the opening of the Whitney Biennial on May 17. Two protests have already been held in March, where activists filled the Kanders-funded Andy Warhol exhibit with sage smoke to protest the tear gas manufacturer’s ties to the museum. A week later, protesters showcased their message through banners and flyers, singing songs of liberty to voice the true purpose of art at an establishment like the Whitney.

This wave of protests is far from isolated. Museums and galleries have turned into spaces of revolt, as artists, academics, and activists unite to speak out against the dirty money behind some of the most venerated establishments.

The Sackler Trust recently froze donations to art institutions in the UK, in response to ongoing protests around the Sackler-owned pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma’s contribution to the US opioid crisis. Renowned photographer Nan Goldin survived opioid addiction, and now battles the Sackler family’s encroachments into the art world through her activist group PAIN (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now).

In conversation with BBC Radio 4, Goldin said: “I would appreciate the news if I heard that their money was going to pay reparations for the people whose lives they’ve ruined and the communities they’ve destroyed. There’s 300,000 people dead in this country. Their money should go to in some way pay for all the damage they’ve done.”

This year art activist group Art Space Sanctuary demanded the MoMa sever its links to private prisons in the US, just a month after 350 activists from BP or Not to BP flooded the British Museum to protests its collaboration with the energy company.

You can read more on art activists’ views on the need to combat complicity in creative spaces on Dazed here.