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Decolonize This Place’s “The Crisis of the Whitney” poster. Photo: Decolonize This Place.
Decolonize This Place’s “The Crisis of the Whitney” poster. Photo: Decolonize This Place.

Activists Plan to Take on the Whitney Museum with “Nine Weeks of Art and Action”

Following the release of the artist list for the 2019 Whitney Biennial, the activist group Decolonize This Place has revealed it is planning “nine weeks of art and action” leading up to the event, which opens on May 17. The group is mobilizing against the Whitney Museum of American Art because it believes the institution failed to adequately address concerns about the vice chairman of its board, Warren B. Kanders, who owns Safariland—the private defense company that has manufactured tear gas used on asylum seekers at the US–Mexico border.

The controversy over Kanders’s support of the museum has been ongoing for several months. It prompted ninety-five members of its staff to pen an internal letter urging the Whitney to reassess its ties to Kanders in November, sparked a protest for which activists chanted and burned sage in the museum’s lobby in December, and led W.A.G.E. (Working Artists and the Greater Economy) to issue an invitation to all biennial participants to withhold works in solidarity with the institution’s employees as well as to demand compensation for their labor.

The New York Times has since reported that Chicago-based artist Michael Rakowitz dropped out of the biennial over Kanders’s continued presence there. He told reporter Jillian Steinhauer that if he participated in the event he would be “betraying everything that I’ve ever cared about in the work that I make.” The New York Times also revealed that the biennial will pay each artist in the exhibition the W.A.G.E.-approved fee of $1,500.

Among the seventy-five other artists who were invited to participate, the collective Forensic Architecture, which was nominated for the 2018 Turner Prize, plans to address the situation. On Twitter the group wrote: “In light of recent reporting by @hyperallergic & protests by @decolonize_this & others, our invitation to the 2019 #WhitneyBiennial has become a challenge which unites the political & cultural dimensions of our practice. We will respond through our contribution.”

Decolonize This Place published a manual on Wednesday, February 27 that contains the dates of the actions, which will begin March 22 and take place every Friday until the biennial opens; details about meetings and future training sessions; and strategies for escalation, which range from contacting museum workers to organizing demonstrations.

In a statement, the group wrote: “We respect the artist and curators of the biennial along with the staff who have spoken out against Kanders. We also appreciate Michael Rakowitz’s decision to boycott the biennial. We stand in solidarity with all artist who make a similar decision in the coming months. We are organizing and in conversation with biennial artists on how we can pressure the museum to do the right thing, which begins with the removal of Warren Kanders.”

The statement continues: “It is important to note that Warren Kanders is just the start of the crisis at the Whitney. There is no safe space for profiteers of all state violence.”