January 3, 2019

Activists Call for Town Hall to Address Controversy over Whitney Museum Vice Chair's Ties to Defense Company

NEW YORK—Decolonize This Place is calling for continued action against the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. The activist group organized a protest at the institution on December 9 after it learned that the vice chair of the Whitney’s board, Warren B. Kanders, is the owner and CEO of the weapons manufacturer Safariland that produced tear gas canisters used on asylum seekers at the US–Mexico border earlier this year.

The group is currently planning on holding a town hall at 1 PM on January 26, at a location that has yet to be announced, where individuals will be allowed to express grievances and help strategize on how to best confront the museum about its goal of removing Kanders from its board.

Kanders’s ties to the company, first reported by Hyperallergic in November, sparked outrage among the museum’s staff. In response, nearly one hundred employees signed an open letter, which denounced the institution’s failure to address Kanders’s business dealings and urged the Whitney to no longer accept funding from controversial donors.

Adam Weinberg, the museum’s director answered the letter by issuing a statement which read in part: “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.”

The statement was largely perceived as ignoring the conflict of interest, which many activists believe Kanders’s poses to the museum. Participants in the protest were also angered over the institution’s decision to remain silent on the action.

“The current crisis of the Whitney is an opportunity to build power together,” Decolonize This Place wrote on Facebook. “We are confident that by joining forces we can successfully pressure the museum to reverse its current stance on Kanders. This could be a first step to reclaiming the museum, and making it an institution truly accountable to its staff and to the communities it claims to serve.”

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