Hal Foster, Claire Bishop, and More Than 120 Other Intellectuals Call for the Removal of Warren Kanders From the Whitney’s Board

Opponents of Kanders say he has been "artwashing" his profits from the defense industry.

Activists protesting against the continued presence of Warren B. Kanders on the board of the Whitney Museum. Photo by Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images.
Activists protesting against the continued presence of Warren Kanders on the board of the Whitney Museum. Photo by Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images.

The firestorm of opposition to Warren Kanders, the Whitney Museum vice chair who is also chief executive of Safariland, a company that produces weapons for the police and military, including tear gas that has been used at the US border against migrants, is intensifying.

More than 120 scholars and critics have signed an open letter posted on the radical publisher Verso’s website calling for his removal. Among them are major art historians such as Hal Foster, Benjamin Buchloh, Alexander Alberro, and Claire Bishop. (artnet News’s National Art Critic, Ben Davis, is also a signatory).

The 800-word declaration, titled “Kanders Must Go,” suggests that his removal from the Whitney’s board would allow for “a deep, and long-overdue conversation about artwashing, the role of private funding in the cultural sphere, and the accountability of institutions to the communities they claim to serve.”

Contacted by artnet News, the Whitney Museum declined to comment.

Decolonize This Place protests at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Photo courtesy of @nycDSAantiwar.

Decolonize This Place protests against Warren Kanders at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Photo courtesy of @nycDSAantiwar.

This past December, museum director Adam Weinberg issued a statement in response to a letter signed by more than 100 museum staffers asking the Whitney to reconsider its ties to Kanders.

“We respect the right to dissent as long as we can safeguard the art in our care and the people in our midst,” Weinberg wrote in the letter. “As one director colleague describes the contemporary museum, it is ‘a safe space for unsafe ideas.’ This is the democracy of art.”

You can read the full text of the latest open letter below.

We, the undersigned theorists, critics, and scholars, are writing to address the unfolding crisis at the Whitney Museum, and to call for the removal of Warren B. Kanders, the vice-chairman of the museum’s board. In making this call, we are amplifying a demand put forth by 100 members of the Whitney staff in a letter to the museum administration in November, 2018. Kanders is the CEO of Safariland, a “law enforcement products company” responsible for the manufacturing and marketing of weapons such as the tear gas used against migrant families at the U.S./Mexico border, Water Protectors at Standing Rock, protesters in Ferguson, Oakland, Palestine, Puerto Rico, Egypt, and more. Safariland also supplies the NYPD and Corrections Departments across the country. We stand with those members of the staff who organized and spoke out at great risk to themselves, and the dozens of grassroots groups that have been taking action at the Whitney Museum in the period since the staff letter was released.

The stakes of the demand to remove Kanders are high and extend far beyond the art world. Alongside universities, cultural institutions like the Whitney are among the few spaces in public life today that claim to be devoted to ideals of education, creativity, and dissent beyond the dictates of the market. Yet, these institutions have been historically entwined with the power structures of settler colonialism, white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, and capitalism. They have long functioned as “good places to convert roughly obtained private wealth into social prestige,” as the Washington Post recently put it. These institutions provide cover for the likes of Kanders as they profit from war, state violence, displacement, land theft, mass incarceration, and climate disaster.Upon learning about Kanders’ connection to Safariland, the authors of the staff letter wrote, “we felt not annoyed, not intellectually upset—we felt sick to our stomachs, we shed tears, we felt unsafe… For many of us, the communities at the border, in Ferguson, in the Dakotas, are our communities.”

The demand to remove Kanders points to broader patterns of toxic philanthropy on museum boards, universities, and other public and private institutions. Protests are currently proliferating around museums, from P.A.I.N. Sackler’s recent success in forcing the Guggenheim and the Tate to cut ties with the Sackler family, to ongoing campaigns targeting El Museo Del Barrio, MoMA, the American Museum of Natural History, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Brown University Arts Initiative where Kanders is also a donor and board member. These calls to hold institutions accountable, and to deeply transform them, have a long historical lineage, including the work of the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition and the Art Workers Coalition in New York City during the 1960s.

The Whitney and institutions like it are sites of struggle, bringing multiple stakeholders together in acts of solidarity. These new formations, in turn, flow into broader movements for freedom and justice. The demand to remove Kanders issued in the staff letter, and the subsequent mobilization by dozens of community groups for the ongoing 9 weeks of art and action, suggest that the tides are turning. Saying “no” to Kanders opens a positive opportunity to begin a deep, and long-overdue conversation about artwashing, the role of private funding in the cultural sphere, and the accountability of institutions to the communities they claim to serve.

The Whitney staff letter has called for “the development and distribution of a clear policy around Trustee participation,” that would “clarify what qualifies or disqualifies a wealthy philanthropic individual for the Board. Is there a moral line?” Clarifying lines of unacceptability concerning Trustee participation is a crucial step by the museum, but on its own this reform will not resolve the crisis at the Whitney, or at other institutions facing similar dilemmas. At stake are deeper structural questions related to the distribution of power and the shape of institutional governance. These questions have been addressed in recent years by a range of grassroots groups and student movements working to “decolonize” museums and universities. They are building solidarity across struggles by demanding decolonization commissions that include community stakeholders, and that are guided by a variety of urgent principles: Indigenous land rights and restitution, reparations for enslavement and its legacies, the dismantling of patriarchy, workplace democracy, de-gentrification, climate justice, and sanctuary from border regimes and state violence more generally.

There are no easy solutions to the current crisis of the Whitney, and there is no blueprint for decolonization. But there is a desire to confront these problems across a broad spectrum of the arts, academia, and grassroots community groups. As mobilizations and actions continue, we call upon educators and cultural workers of all kinds, including artists in the Whitney Biennial and in the collection of the museum, to join us in taking a stand against Kanders. This moment is an opportunity for the museum leadership to do the right thing, to stand on the right side of history, and to participate in a transformative process that could set the bar for other institutions across the country.

Signed,

Alexander Alberro (Barnard College, Columbia University)

Dave Alff (University at Buffalo, SUNY)

Avi Alpert (Princeton University)

Jane Anderson (New York University)

Corina L. Apostol (independent curator, editor and art historian)

Ariella Azoulay (Brown University)

Ivana Bago (Delve – Institute for Duration, Location and Variables)

Kazembe Balagun (Rosa Luxemburg Foundation)

Karen Barad (UC Santa Cruz)

Brooke Belisle (SUNY Stony Brook)

Omar Berrada (Cooper Union)

Claire Bishop (CUNY Graduate Center)

Zach Blas (Goldsmiths, University of London)

Houria Bouteldja (Parti des Indigènes de la République)

Benjamin H.D. Buchloh (Harvard University)

Craig Buckley (Yale University)

Eduardo Cadava (Princeton University)

Susan Cahn (University at Buffalo, SUNY)

Tina Campt (Barnard College, Columbia University)

Lindsay Caplan (Brown University)

Anne Carson (professor of classics and writer in residence New York University)

Paula Chakravartty (New York University)

George Ciccariello-Maher (Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics, New York University)

Nikki Columbus (writer and editor)

Drucilla Cornell (Rutgers University)

Ashon Crawley (University of Virginia)

Andrew Culp (California Institute of the Arts)

Robert Currie (New York University)

Arlene Davila (New York University)

Ben Davis (art critic)

Heather Davis (The New School)

Ashley Dawson(CUNY Graduate Center)

Eric de Bruyn (Freie Universität Berlin)

T.J. Demos (UC Santa Cruz)

Dipti Desai (New York University)

Rosalyn Deutsche (Barnard College, Columbia University)

Jaskiran Dhillon (The New School)

Ricardo Dominguez (UC San Diego)

Diane Elze (University at Buffalo, SUNY)

Mireille Fanon (Frantz Fanon Foundation)

Abou Farman (TheNew School)

Silvia Federici (Hofstra University)

Denise Ferreira da Silva (University of British Columbia)

Nicole Fleetwood (Rutgers University)

Tatiana Flores (Rutgers University)

iLiana Fokianaki (State of Concept Athens)

Hal Foster (Princeton University)

Sara Galletti (Duke University)

Elaine Gan (New York University)

Benj Gerdes (Royal Institute of Art, Stockholm)

Judith Goldman (University at Buffalo, SUNY)

Macarena Gomez-Barris (Pratt Institute)

Jennifer González (UC Santa Cruz)

David Graeber (London School of Economics)

Sandy Grande (University of Connecticut)

Erin Gray (New York University)

Chelsea Haines (CUNY Graduate Center)

Nicole Hallett (University at Buffalo School of Law)

Zack Hatfield (Artforum)

Tarry Hum (Queens College)

Adelita Husni-Bey

Yelena Kalinsky (Michigan State University)

J. Kēhaulani Kauanui (Wesleyan University)

Laleh Khalili (SOAS University of London)

Robin D. G. Kelley (University of California, Los Angeles)

Olga Kopenkina (independent curator and art critic)

Chris Lee (University at Buffalo, SUNY)

Sohl Lee (Stony Brook University, SUNY)

Lucy Lippard (independent critic)

Tanya Loughead (Canisius College)

Ben Mabie (Verso Books)

Antonia Majaca (Dutch Art Institute)

Nelson Maldonado-Torres (Rutgers University)

Jaleh Mansoor (University of British Columbia)

Reinhold Martin (Columbia University)

Theresa McCarthy (University of Buffalo)

Tom McDonough (Binghamton University, SUNY)

Ara H. Merjian (New York University)

Sheehan Moore (CUNY Graduate Center)

Fred Moten (New York University)

Alyssa Mt. Pleasant (University at Buffalo, SUNY)

Vasuki Nesiah (New York University)

Mimi Thi Nguyen (University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign)

Tavia Nyong’o (Yale University)

A. Naomi Paik (University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign)

Ian Alan Paul (SUNY Stony Brook)

Daniel Penny (critic)

Andreas Petrossiants (writer)

Jelena Petrovic (independent curator, Red Mined collective)

Elizabeth A. Povinelli (Columbia University)

Katja Praznik (University at Buffalo, SUNY)

Jasbir K. Puar (Rutgers University)

Julia Robinson (New York University)

Julian Rose (Columbia University)

Andrew Ross (New York University)

Adair Rounthwaite (University of Washington)

Dean Itsuji Saranillio (New York University)

Barry Schwabsky (art critic)

Emily Eliza Scott (University of Oregon)

Sima Shakhsari (University of Minnesota)

Girish Shambu (Canisius College)

Stephen Sheehi (College of William and Mary)

Lara Sheehi (Licensed Clinical Psychologist)

Tamar Shirinian (Millsaps College)

Gregory Sholette (Queens College)

Audra Simpson (Columbia University)

Nikhil Pal Singh (New York University)

Anne Spice (CUNY Graduate Center)

Samuel Stein (Hunter College)

Jasmina Tumbas (University at Buffalo, SUNY)

Jelena Vesic (curator, art historian and lecturer)

Bojana Videkanić (University of Waterloo)

Andrew Weiner (New York University)

Eyal Weizman (Goldsmiths, College of London)

Jonah Westerman (SUNY Purchase)

Kenneth White (Binghamton University, SUNY)

Mabel O. Wilson (Columbia University)

Shannon Woodcock (independent historian)

Lily Woodruff (Michigan State University)

Cynthia Wu (Indiana University)

Neferti Xina MacAgba Tadiar (Barnard College, Columbia University)

Soyoung Yoon (The New School)

Benjamin Young (Fashion Institute of Technology, SUNY)

Vazira Fazila-Yacoobali Zamindar (Brown University)


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