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Academics Join Protest Against Whitney Museum Vice Chair Warren B. Kanders

More than 120 theorists, critics, and scholars have signed an open letter that calls for the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York to eject Warren B. Kanders from his position as vice chairman of the institution’s board. Kanders is the owner and CEO of the private defense company Safariland, which has manufactured tear-gas canisters that were recently used against asylum seekers at the US–Mexico border.

“The stakes of the demand to remove Kanders are high and extend far beyond the art world,” the document reads. “Alongside universities, cultural institutions like the Whitney are among the few spaces in public life today that claim to be devoted to ideals of education, creativity, and dissent beyond the dictates of the market. Yet these institutions have been historically entwined with the power structures of settler colonialism, white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, and capitalism.” 

The signatories of the letter, which was published by Verso Books this morning, stand in solidarity with the ninety-five Whitney staffers who wrote an internal letter to the museum’s management in November 2018. After learning about Kanders’s ties to the migrant crisis, the staff wrote, “We felt sick to our stomachs, we shed tears, we felt unsafe.” The employees also asked the museum to develop and distribute a clear policy on trustee participation and to consider asking for Kanders’s resignation. Since the letter was leaked to the public, a wave of protests and other actions have been carried out at the institution.

Activist group Decolonize This Place has organized several demonstrations in order to raise awareness about the controversy. It announced in February that it will hold “nine weeks of art and actions” and has planned events at the museum every Friday leading up to the opening of the Whitney Biennial on May 17. Two protests have already been held. Activists flooded the museum’s blockbuster Andy Warhol exhibition, which was financially backed by Kanders, on March 22. For the second action, protesters sang songs of liberation, passed out flyers, unfurled banners, and continued to raise awareness about Kanders’s affiliations. The third demonstration will take place tonight.

According to the letter, the mobilization against Kanders suggests 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.”

While a spokesperson for the museum did not immediately respond to Artforum’s request for comment, director Adam Weinberg answered the staff’s concerns in a letter last year that, in part, read: “As members of the Whitney community, we each have our critical and complementary roles: trustees do not hire staff, select exhibitions, organize programs or make acquisitions, and staff does not appoint or remove board members. Our truly extraordinary environment, which lends such high expectations, is something we must preserve collectively.”

Kanders also responded to the uproar over his company by criticizing the “politicization of every aspect of public life, including commercial organizations and cultural institutions,” and by distancing himself from the use of tear gas at the border wall by saying that he is not responsible for how his company’s customers use its products.

The open letter concludes: “There are no easy solutions to the current crisis of the Whitney, and there is no blueprint for decolonization. But there is a desire to confront these problems across a broad spectrum of the arts, academia, and grassroots community groups. . . .This moment is an opportunity for the museum leadership to do the right thing, to stand on the right side of history, and to participate in a transformative process that could set the bar for other institutions across the country.”

Among the signatories are Ariella Azoulay, Claire Bishop, Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, Nikki Columbus, Rosalyn Deutsche, Hal Foster, Jennifer Gonzalez, Robin D. G. Kelley, Lucy Lippard, Fred Moten, Tavia Nyong’o, Jasbir Puar, and Audra Simpson.

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