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Artists Withdraw from Whitney Biennial as Backlash Builds Against Warren Kanders

Above: The Whitney Museum of American Art. Photo: Karin Jobst.
Above: The Whitney Museum of American Art. Photo: Karin Jobst.

NEW YORK—Four artists—Korakrit Arunanondchai, Meriem Bennani, Nicole Eisenman, and Nicholas Galanin—have withdrawn from the 2019 Whitney Biennial. The reason given is the museum’s failure to address the concerns of staff, artists, and activists over the role of the Whitney’s vice chair, Warren Kanders, as CEO of Safariland, a global defense manufacturer that sells tear gas. The participants in the exhibition, which runs until September 22, signed a letteraddressed to the biennial’s curators, Rujeko Hockley and Jane Panetta, and shared for public release with Artforum, asking for their works to be removed.

“We care deeply about the Whitney,” the letter reads. “Over the years, many shows at the Museum have inspired and informed our art. We were angry when we learned of Kanders’s role as CEO of Safariland, a company that manufactures tear gas and other weapons of repression. At the time, we had already accepted your invitation to participate in the Whitney Biennial and were all well into fabrication of major pieces for this show. We found ourselves in a difficult position: withdraw in protest or stay and abide a conflicted conscience. We decided to participate.”

“But the Museum’s continued failure to respond in any meaningful way to growing pressure from artists and activists has made our participation untenable. The Museum’s inertia has turned the screw, and we refuse further complicity with Kanders and his technologies of violence.”

The artists’ decision to pull their works follows months of demonstrations staged at the museum by activist groups such as Decolonize This Place, Art Space Sanctuary, the Chinatown Art Brigade, Mobile Print Power, and Take Back the Bronx; an open letter demanding Kanders’s resignation that was signed by theorists, critics, scholars, and the majority of the participants in the biennial; and an internal letter sent to museum management by nearly one hundred of the Whitney’s staffers who were alarmed after they learned that Kanders’s company supplied the tear gas used against asylum seekers at the US–Mexico border as well as protesters of the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock, an Indian reservation in North Dakota, and the murder by police of Michael Brown, an unarmed African American teenager, in Ferguson, Missouri.

It also follows the Chicago-based artist Michael Rakowitz’s announcement that he declined the Whitney’s invitation to participate in the exhibition and Forensic Architecture’s resolution to use the biennial as a platform to educate museumgoers about the Kanders controversy.

The move also arrives in the wake of a statement penned by Hannah Black, Ciarán Finlayson, and Tobi Haslettcondemning Kanders and urging artists to act: “The movement against Kanders is not random or impulsive. The case against him has been building, and has now been delivered into the hands of artists, who have an extraordinary capacity to speak and be heard. . . . Two of the authors of this statement have recently rejected offers from the Whitney in explicit protest against Kanders. But these were private negotiations, private gestures—which we are now making public as a way, we hope, of joining our efforts to those of colleagues and friends who also wish to contribute to putting collective pressure on the institution. We have heard that it would be impossible to remove Kanders; everything is impossible before it happens.”

The letter sent to the Whitney curators is republished in full below:

Dear Ru and Jane,

We respectfully ask you to withdraw our work from the Whitney Biennial for the remainder of the show. This request is intended as condemnation of Warren Kanders’ continued presence as Vice Chair of the Board. We would appreciate if you presented this letter to the Board to let them know the seriousness of the situation.

We care deeply about the Whitney. Over the years, many shows at the Museum have inspired and informed our art. We were angry when we learned of Kanders’s role as CEO of Safariland, a company that manufactures tear gas and other weapons of repression. At the time, we had already accepted your invitation to participate in the Whitney Biennial and some of us were well into fabrication of major pieces for this show. We found ourselves in a difficult position: withdraw in protest or stay and abide a conflicted conscience. We decided to participate.

But the Museum’s continued failure to respond in any meaningful way to growing pressure from artists and activists has made our participation untenable. The Museum’s inertia has turned the screw, and we refuse further complicity with Kanders and his technologies of violence.

We have enormous respect for you as curators and it has been a pleasure working with you.

Yours sincerely,

Korakrit Arunanondchai

Meriem Bennani

Nicole Eisenman

Nicholas Galanin

[Update:] In response to the artists’ decision to pull their works, Whitney Museum director Adam D. Weinberg provided Artforum with the following statement: “The Whitney respects the opinions of all the artists it exhibits and stands by their right to express themselves freely. While the Whitney is saddened by this decision, we will of course comply with the artists’ request.”

[Update, July 20, 11:00 AM:] As of Saturday morning, three additional artists—Eddie Arroyo, Christine Sun Kim, and Agustina Woodgate—have requested to withdraw their work from the biennial, according to the New York Times.

July 22, 2019