Several activist organizations are calling on artists to yank their support from The Whitney Museum’s upcoming Biennial, one of the institution’s most high-profile exhibitions for emerging artists. The proposed action — organized by Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E) and publicized by Decolonize This Place and the Chinatown Art Brigade — follows months of backlash against the museum over its connection to a defense technology manufacturer.
Announced Wednesday in a Facebook post, the boycott urges artists to “demand to be paid for the content they provide and withhold that content” from the Biennial until the museum adequately addresses its ties to Warren B. Kanders, a vice chairman of the museum who also owns the defense company The Safariland Group. The company sells pepper spray, tear gas, riot gear and other weaponry to law enforcement and military agencies. Pictures posted to Twitter on Nov. 25 revealed Safariland products were used against migrants who had traveled to the U.S-Mexico border in a caravan, attempting to seek asylum.
Amin Husain, an organizer with Decolonize This Place, told ALL ARTS that Kanders’s presence on the Whitney board belies the museum’s professed values of diversity and inclusivity.
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“There’s a sense in our city that these cultural institutions are beholden to money, and some money is coming from rich people that are doing bad things,” said Husain. “It’s giving [Kanders] a better character, a better look, through association.”
Controversial sources of funding is not an issue exclusive to The Whitney, but the Kanders episode has proven to be a flashpoint for ongoing conversations about outside financial support and accountability, Husain said. Community members have voiced their frustration over the museum’s ties to Kanders through a slew of recent actions, including guerrilla art installations and a Dec. 9 protest. The activist groups are now set to host a Jan. 26 town hall at The Cooper Union to discuss the issue.
— DecolonizeThisPlace (@decolonize_this) December 10, 2018
Kanders defended his company last month in an open letter, arguing that The Safariland Group manufactures products worn by law enforcement to help “keep us safe,” including safety holsters and bomb suits, and that he doesn’t choose the scenarios in which Safariland products are used. He added that his involvement with and funding of Whitney exhibitions “reflects my personal values around diversity, inclusion, access and equality.”
Nevertheless, Whitney employees have said the connection makes it difficult to do their work. In a Nov. 30 letter to museum leadership obtained by Hyperallergic, the staff maintained that the museum’s continued association with Kanders is tantamount to complicity in his company’s business dealings.
“We cannot claim to serve these communities while accepting funding from individuals whose actions are at odds with that mission,” the employees stated. “This work which we are so proud of does not wash away these connections.”
The Whitney declined to directly comment on the upcoming town hall and proposed action, instead providing ALL ARTS with a letter addressed to museum staff from museum director Adam Weinberg. The December letter said the museum respects freedom of speech and condemned rising nationalism and a reported surge of discrimination in the country. Weinberg, however, cautioned that the museum “cannot right all the ills of an unjust world, nor is that its role.”
“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,” he wrote.
Lise Soskolne, the core organizer from W.A.G.E, was not swayed by his argument, telling ALL ARTS that the “age of political neutrality by artists is over.”
“There is no denying that we participate in this economy and as long as this economy supports and holds in place race, gender and class-based forms of oppression and dispossession, it can and must be challenged,” Soskolne said.
The town hall event, hosted by Decolonize This Place, W.A.G.E and Chinatown Art Brigade, will be held on Jan. 26 at 1 p.m. at The Cooper Union. The Whitney Biennial takes place May 17 through Sept. 22.