After weeks of escalating protests that led to eight artists pulling out of The Whitney Biennial, Warren B. Kanders finally gave in and resigned. The vice-chairman of The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York has been a subject of controversy after it was revealed that his company, Safariland, was supplying law enforcement and military agents with munition that they use against protesters and migrants at the US-Mexico border. In a resignation letter to the board, first reported by the New York Times, Kanders wrote:
The targeted campaign of attacks against me and my company that has been waged these past several months has threatened to undermine the important work of the Whitney. I joined this board to help the museum prosper. I do not wish to play a role, however inadvertent, in its demise.
Decolonize This Place, an activist group that largely led the charge on the matter, said in a statement:
We welcome this step by the museum leadership as an act of good faith, responsive to the staff, community groups, activists, organizers, artists, and thinkers who have demanded the removal of Kanders.
The Campaign Against Warren B. Kanders
Kanders is a succesful businessman who has founded and led over 14 different companies. He has served on the Whitney Museum’s board since 2006 and in 2012, he decided to acquire the defense manufacturing company, Safariland.
After tear-gas canisters were thrown at migrants along the Californian border, journalist Patrick Timmons revealed that they had Safariland logos, which Hyperallergic quickly linked to Kanders’ Whitney connection. The scathing report detailed how Kanders, a “significant contributor” to the museum, is also a huge force in the weapons manufacturing trade.
Further investigation in the topic revealed that Safariland canisters were being sold and used against protestors in Ferguson, Missouri, the Gaza Strip, Standing Rock in North Dakota and most recently in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
The reports sparked protests, and nearly one hundred Whitney staff members including major curators, signed a letter addressed to the museum’s leadership, asking for Kanders’ resignation. Whitney leadership and Kanders responded to the letter by saying that Kanders is “not the problem the authors of the letter seek to solve” and ultimately made a plea for further conversation.
Activist group Decolonize This Place took the matter into their own hands and began to organize protests against the museum and Kanders. The protests emphasized Kanders’ contribution to larger histories of colonialism, racism, queer erasure and eventually marched near Kanders’ home in New York City.
The Biennial Controversies
Shortly before the Whitney Biennial opened in May of this year, almost half of exhibiting artists signed an open letter demanding for Kanders’ resignation. The list included major artists like Andrea Fraser, Barbara Kruger, Zoe Leonard, Laura Poitras and even led to art historians like Michael Rakowitz to not participate in the show altogether.
Several works shown at the Biennial addressed the issue head on. Most prominently, Forensic Architecture, a multidisciplinary research group that uses architectural methods and technologies to investigate cases of political violence, invited film director Laura Poitras to create Triple-Chaser (2019), a film focused on Kanders’ philanthropy and the use of ammunition produced by Sierra Bullets, a portfolio company of his, in Gaza by Israeli soldiers. Artist Eddie Arroyo also exhibited a painting of a Decolonize This Place rally and Pat Phillips included a tear-gas canister in one of his works.
The controversy worked its way up to the publishing of the essay The Tear Gas Biennial on Artforum in July, with its authors and artists calling on participants to withdraw their works in protest. Two days pass and that is exactly what happened. This list included Hannah Black, Ciarán Finlayson, Tobi Haslett, Nicole Eisenman, Meriem Bennani, Korakrit Arunanonchai, and Nicolas Galanin. Eddie Arroyo, Forensic Architecture, Christine Sun Kim, and Agustina Woodgate, followed suit.
The debate comes at a time when many institutions have come under public pressure from activists and artists alike over “toxic philanthropy”, or in other words, their ties to people with concerning résumés. The Sackler family name has generally been dropped from almost all institutions around the world over their contribution to and profiting from the global opioid crisis. Yana Peel, the former CEO of the Serpentine in London, also stepped down earlier this year after protests over her connections to an Israeli firm whose products are frequently used by authoritarian regimes to spy on dissidents.
Amin Husain, a member of Decolonize This Place, said to ARTnews that Kanders’ resignation marks a positive step toward institutional change:
Whether it’s the Sacklers, whether it’s BP oil, whether it’s the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement in the art world—all of these things are pointing to a politics of accountability. It’s the recognition that these museums are not neutral.