Embattled Whitney Museum Vice Chair Resigns From Board Over Tear Gas, Gaza Outrage
In response to mounting pressure from artists and protests groups, Warren B. Kanders, the chief executive of police and military equipment company the Safariland Group, resigned from the board of the Whitney Museum on July 24. He had previously been a vice chair of that board, on which he sat for 13 years.
“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 said in his resignation letter to the board, which was first 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.”
Kanders’s resignation comes days after eight artists presenting work at the Whitney Biennial withdrew from the prestigious exhibit in protest after the publication of a widely-read July 18 essay, “The Tear Gas Biennial,” on Artforum. That essay, written by Hannah Black, Ciarán Finlayson and Tobi Haslett, lamented that only one artist had boycotted the exhibition given reporting by Hyperallergic, last November, which revealed that tear gas manufactured by Safariland was used at the U.S.-Mexico border. At the time the essay was published, the only artist who had refused to be involved with the exhibit was the Iraqi-American Jewish sculptor Michael Rakowitz.
On July 19 the artists Korakrit Arunanondchai, Meriem Bennani, Nicole Eisenman and Nicholas Galanin responded to the essay by requesting the removal of their work from the Biennial in an open letter published on Artforum.
“[T]he Museum’s continued failure to respond in any meaningful way to growing pressure from artists and activists has made our participation untenable,” the artists wrote. “The Museum’s inertia has turned the screw, and we refuse further complicity with Kanders and his technologies of violence.”
The following day, the artists Eddie Arroyo and Agustina Woodgate jointly requested, through their gallery, Spinello Projects, that their work also be removed from the Biennial, telling The Times that their “request [was] intended as condemnation of Warren Kanders’ continued presence as Vice Chair of the Board and the Museum’s continued failure to respond in any meaningful way to growing pressure from artists and activists.” Separately, on the same day, the sound artist Christine Sun Kim and the London-based group Forensic Architecture asked that their art no longer be included in the exhibit.
Forensic Architecture’s contribution to the Biennial was a video titled “Triple-Chaser,” which explained technology used by the group to identify Safariland-manufactured tear gas grenades. The group requested that a statement presenting condemnatory new research on one of Kanders’s companies be posted in its place. That research, Hyperallergic reports, concerns new evidence discovered by an anonymous Forensic Architecture researcher that allegedly indicates that an open-tip bullet apparently used by the IDF against Palestinian protesters was manufactured by another Kanders company. The bullet, which the researcher found in the sand close to the Al-Bureji protest camp near the Israeli-Gaza border, is said to match the specs of a bullet made by Sierra Bullets, a company partially owned by Kanders.
The researcher reportedly found the bullet this month. But she is not the first to link Kanders to the Israeli military. Hyperallergic previously reported that “sponge bullets” believed to be manufactured by a Safariland subsidiary were visible in April 5 photos of Israeli soldiers at the Gaza border. That same day, a letter demanding Kanders’s removal signed by over 120 artists, art critics and scholars appeared online on the Verso Books blog.
The reports of the sponge bullets and the letter pushing for Kanders’s ouster came in the midst of demonstrations led by the activist group Decolonize This Place, which protested outside the Whitney for “Nine Weeks of Art and Action” beginning in March, during the lead up to the Biennial.
The last time Kanders responded publicly to controversy surrounding his position was in November 2018, following reporting about tear gas canisters found at the U.S.-Mexico border. After Hyperallergic linked Kanders to the Whitney, 100 museum employees signed a letter demanding that their employers explain the Safariland CEO’s continued position on the board.
“The staff letter implies that I am responsible for the decision to use these products. I am not,” Kanders wrote in a responding 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 stepping down, Kanders expressed his concern for the state of the art world and affirmed that the future of the board’s work was placed in “great jeopardy” by the “toxic environment” of the public discourse.
“Art, as I know it, is not intended to force one-sided answers, or to suppress independent thinking. And yet, these recent events have illustrated how a single narrative, created and sustained by groups with a much larger and more insidious agenda, can overwhelm that spirit,” Kanders wrote in his resignation letter.
In his letter, Kanders also announced that his wife, Allison Kanders, would be resigning from her post as co-chair of the Whitney’s painting and sculpture committee.
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture fellow. He can be reached at [email protected]