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Whitney Museum Faces Mounting Backlash over Vice Chair’s Ties to Tear Gas Manufacturer

Warren B. Kanders, vice board chair of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, has responded to demands for his resignation over his affiliation with Safariland, a company that manufactures tear gas and riot gear, among other products, which have been used against asylum-seekers at the US–Mexico border.

After Hyperallergic reported last week that Kanders is currently Safariland’s chairman and CEO—he acquired the company for $124 million from BAE Systems, Europe’s largest defense contractor, in 2012—more than one hundred museum employees signed an internal letter to the institution, expressing their outrage. “We felt sick to our stomachs, we shed tears, we felt unsafe,” the letter reads. The staffers also called for the institution’s director Adam Weinberg to answer for Kanders’s inclusion on the board.

“Some of us are deeply connected to the communities that are being directly impacted and targeted by the tear gassing at the border,” the letter reads. “For the Whitney not to acknowledge that this news may impact its staff is to assume we are separate from the issue, that it is happening somewhere else to some other people. Many of us feel the violence inflicted upon the refugees—and against mostly-POC protesters in Ferguson, and mostly-Indigenous protesters of the Dakota Access Pipeline, just two of many other instances of militarized tear gassing of unarmed citizens—much more personally than it seems to affect leadership. For many of us, the communities at the border, in Ferguson, in the Dakotas, are our communities.”

“Upon learning of Kanders’s business dealings, many of us working on these initiatives feel uncomfortable in our positions. . . . We cannot claim to serve these communities while accepting funding from individuals whose actions are at odds with that mission. . . . Continuing to accept funding—even, or perhaps especially, transformative funding—from individuals who are knowingly complicit in the injustices committed on our own land and across our borders is negative peace. We demand positive peace.”

Fueling the dispute over Kanders—who is listed as a significant contributor to the Whitney’s current Andy Warhol retrospective, which runs until March 31, 2019—is an incident that occurred on November 25. US Customs and Border agents deployed tear gas manufactured by Safariland and its sister company Defense Technology against a group of migrants as they tried to cross from Tijuana to San Diego. Safariland has also previously armed police forces quelling protestors in Oakland, California; Baltimore, Maryland; and Ferguson, Missouri, with tear gas.

In response to the backlash, Kanders released a statement saying: “While my company and the museum have distinct missions, both are important contributors to our society. This is why I believe that the politicization of every aspect of public life, including commercial organizations and cultural institutions, is not productive or healthy. . . . Safariland’s role as a manufacturer is to ensure the products work, as expected, when needed. Safariland’s role is not to determine when and how they are employed. The staff letter implies that I am responsible for the decision to use these products. I am not. That is not an abdication of responsibility, it is an acknowledgement of reality.”

Commenting on the rising tension between the museum employees and the institution’s board, Weinberg also issued a letter to the staff. The document says: “We truly live in difficult times. People are suffering in our city, the US and around the world: nationalism has risen to unimaginable heights; homelessness is rampant; refugee crises abound; people of color, women and LGBTQ communities feel under attack; and the environment grows more precarious. All these tragedies have understandably led to tremendous sadness and frustration, quick tempers, magnified rhetoric and generational conflict.”

It continues: “We at the Whitney have created a culture that is unique and vibrant—but also precious and fragile. This ‘space’ is not one I determine as director but something that we fashion by mutual consent and shared commitment on all levels and in many ways. 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. Even as we contend with often profound contradictions within our culture, we must live within the laws of society and observe the ‘rules’ of our Museum—mutual respect, fairness, tolerance and freedom of expression and, speaking personally, a commitment to kindness. It is so easy to tear down but so much more difficult to build and sustain.”

The letter didn’t name Kanders or mention whether the museum would reconsider his involvement with the board.