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Whitney Museum Vice Chairman Warren B. Kanders Resigns

Above: A protest against Warren B. Kanders that was held at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Photo: Lauren Cavalli.
Above: A protest against Warren B. Kanders that was held at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Photo: Lauren Cavalli.

NEW YORK—Warren B. Kanders, a controversial vice chairman of the Whitney Museum of American Art, has stepped down. Activists have campaigned to have him removed from the board since November 2018, when his role as CEO of the defense manufacturer Safariland was reported by Hyperallergic—the company’s tear gas grenades have been used by law enforcement against migrants at the US-Mexico border as well as against demonstrators in Standing Rock, North Dakota, and Ferguson, Missouri. The announcement follows months of protests at the museum and comes just days after eight artists decided to withdraw from the Whitney Biennial over Kanders’s involvement with the museum.

“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,” Kanders wrote in his resignation letter, which was obtained by the New York Times. “I joined this board to help the museum prosper. I do not wish to play a role, however inadvertent, in its demise.”

While the circumstances surrounding Kanders’s resignation are not yet clear, his last act as vice chairman was to scold the museum’s remaining trustees: “I hope you assume the responsibility that your position bestows upon you and find the leadership to maintain the integrity of this museum,” he wrote.

The sixty-one year old joined the Whitney’s board in 2006. Since then, he has served on the executive committee for five years and has donated more than $10 million to the museum. His donations to the institution have helped fund programming such as the blockbuster exhibition “Andy Warhol—From A to B and Back Again.” The retrospective, which opened November 12, 2018 and ran until March 31, 2019, was targeted by activists, who were emboldened by a letter the Whitney’s staff wrote to museum management declaring their “frustration and confusion at the Whitney’s decision to remain silent” on Kanders’s business affiliations—the document was signed by nearly one hundred employees.

Kanders responded to the staff’s concerns with a statement, which read in part: “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.”

The mounting pressure on Kanders to resign and the museum to remove him from the board is part of a larger movement against toxic philanthropy at cultural institutions that has also been led by photographer Nan Goldin and the activist group P.A.I.N., who have demanded that museums stop accepting gifts from the Sackler family, members of which are associated with Purdue Pharma, which has been blamed for the opioid crisis in the United States. Activists across the UK have also consistently protested oil sponsorship of big museums.

Last week, the fight to remove Kanders escalated further when the artists Hannah Black, Ciarán Finlayson, and Tobi Haslett published an essay on artforum.com urging artists to boycott the biennial. “We know that this society is riven by inequities and brutal paradoxes,” they wrote. “Faced with this specific profiteer of state violence, we also find ourselves in a place to act. It is not a pristine place. But we must learn—again, or for the first time—to say no.”

Whitney Biennial artists Korakrit Arunanondchai, Meriem Bennani, Nicole Eisenman, and Nicholas Galanin announced their withdrawal from the exhibition two days later. In a letter explaining their decision, they said: “We care deeply about the Whitney. . . .“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.” Shortly after, four more artists—Eddie Arroyo, Forensic Architecture, Christine Sun Kim, and Agustina Woodgate—also pulled out of the show. Their work has not yet been removed.

[Update: July 25, 1:36 PM] In response to Kanders’s decision to step down, the Whitney Museum’s board of trustees provided Artforum with the following statement:

“The board wishes to express its profound gratitude to Warren and Allison Kanders for their extraordinary generosity, and its deep appreciation for their dedication to the Whitney Museum of American Art and their part in helping to secure the long-term future of the museum.”

Director Adam D. Weinberg added: “Warren and Allison Kanders have been unwavering in their commitment to this institution, including a generous lead gift towards the museum’s building project. The Whitney’s groundbreaking Warhol exhibition and the past exhibitions of the works of Laura Owens, Jeff Koons, and Wade Guyton, among others, were in part made possible thanks to their support. As director, I am very grateful.”

July 26, 2019