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Protest against Warren B. Kanders held at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York on Friday, April 26. Photo: Decolonize This Place.
Protest against Warren B. Kanders held at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York on Friday, April 26. Photo: Decolonize This Place.

Whitney Biennial Artists Join Call for Warren B. Kanders’s Removal from Museum Board

Participants in the upcoming Whitney Biennial are demanding the resignation of Warren B. Kanders, the vice chair of the Whitney Museum of American Art’s board. Activists have protested Kanders—the owner of the Safariland Group, which manufactures and sells defense equipment to the military and law enforcement—and his relationship to the museum since November 2018, when authorities used tear-gas canisters made by the company on asylum seekers at the US–Mexico border.

More than half of the seventy-five artists and collectives invited to take part in the 2019 biennial have added their names to an open letter published by Verso Books on April 5, which reads: “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. . . . 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.”

The letter now has more than 340 signatures. Among the new signees are Whitney Biennial participants Korakrit Arunanondchai, Lucas Blalock, Nicole Eisenman, Forensic Architecture, Jeffrey Gibson, Steffani Jemison, Josh Kline, Elle Pérez, Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Wangechi Mutu, and Martine Syms, as well as artists Sam Durant, Andrea Fraser, Nan Goldin, Hans Haacke, Barbara Kruger, Laura Poitras, Yvonne Rainer, Cameron Rowland, and Dread Scott.

The months-long campaign against Kanders, which has involved various open letters, protests, and other actions, was prompted by an outcry from the museum’s staff after Hyperallergic published a report on Kanders’s ties to the Whitney. Nearly one hundred employees signed an internal letter to management, which asked the museum to reconsider Kanders’s role at the institution and to develop and distribute a “clear policy around trustee participation.”

The museum’s director, Adam Weinberg, issued a statement in response that asked staffers who want to move forward with the institution to help “make the Whitney, and possibly the world, a better place.” He wrote: “We respect the right to dissent as long as we can safeguard the art in our care and the people in our midst.” Kanders also responded to the controversy with a statement that defended his products and claimed that he was not responsible for how they were used. 

In the weeks leading up to the biennial, the activist group Decolonize This Place has been holding weekly actions at the Whitney to draw attention to the issue and pressure the museum to distance itself from Kanders and other profiteers of state violence. The seventy-ninth edition of the exhibition will open on Friday, May 17 and run until September 22.