Four artists have requested the removal of their work from the Whitney Biennial - a historic and often career-making exhibition of contemporary art - citing their objection to military and police hardware entrepreneur Warren B. Kanders’s position as one of the five vice chairs of the Whitney Museum’s board.
“We respectfully ask you to withdraw our work from the Whitney Biennial for the remainder of the show,” artists Korakrit Arunanondchai, Meriem Bennani, Nicole Eisenman and Nicholas Galanin wrote in a letter published on Artforum’s website on July 19. “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.”
Kanders and his status at the Whitney, which is located in the Meatpacking District of Manhattan, have been subject to scrutiny since a November 2018 report from Hyperallergic. Hyperallergic revealed that Kanders’s company Safariland produced teargas used at U.S.-Mexico border. Hyperallergic previously reported that riot gear made by Safariland were used by police in Ferguson, Oakland and Baltimore in an article identifying Kanders as a Whitney trustee. (A report from April later spotted rounds from a Safariland subsidiary in photos of Israeli soldiers at the Gaza border.)
In response to this news, over 100 Whitney staffers signed a letter demanding answers from their employers.
Kanders responded with a letter of his own to the Whitney Board of Trustees.
“The staff letter implies that I am responsible for the decision to use these products. I am not,” Kanders wrote in an open letter. “That is not an abdication of responsibility, it is an acknowledgement of reality. We sell products to government institutions, domestically and internationally, all of which must be certified to purchase and use these products.”
In a letter dated December 18, citing solidarity with the staffers, Jewish Iraqi-American artist Michael Rakowitz withdrew from the Biennial. He was the first artist to do so until the July 19 letter, which appeared on Artforum two days after an essay by Hannah Black, Ciarán Finlayson, and Tobi Haslett lamenting the lack of action by any artist other than Rakowitz.
“[M]any people—reporters, activists, inhabitants of Palestine and Ferguson picking up empty tear gas canisters with their hands and looking for a corporate logo—wanted us to know [about Safariland], and made it possible for us to know,” the essay “The Teargas Biennial,” read. “This knowledge should have been enough to drive the artists in this year’s Whitney Biennial to make the most unequivocal gesture of opposition to Warren B. Kanders: withdrawal from the show. There should have been a boycott.”
In their letter to Biennial curators Rujeko Hockley and Jane Panetta, Arunanondchai, Bennani, Eisenman and Galanin expressed their anger over the news, but revealed the difficult timing of their decision, which comes two months after the start of the exhibition. In the lead-up to that opening, a number of activist groups, including Decolonize this Place and the Palestinian youth activist group Within Our Lifetime launched a series of weekly protests against Kanders.
“At the time [they heard the news], 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,” the letter read. “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.”
In a statement to Hyperallergic, Rakowitz wrote, “I stand in support of and in solidarity with the difficult decision of the artists, and I express my continued solidarity and gratitude to the activist groups who have tirelessly exerted pressure on the museum and have committed to continued demonstrations to raise visibility of this crisis and refuse to allow it to disappear.”
Whitney Director Adam Weinberg has yet to respond to the withdrawals but said in December, in response to his staff’s complaint, “the Whitney is first and foremost a museum. It cannot right all the ills of an unjust world, nor is that its role.”
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture fellow. He can be reached at Grisar@Forward.com.