Tear Gas Company Owner Resigns From Whitney Museum Board
Warren Kanders resigned from the board of trustees of New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, The New York Times reported Thursday. The move followed months of protests against his company, Safariland, for manufacturing tear gas and other law enforcement and military supplies that have been used against migrants, protesters and other civilians all over the world. Last week, Artforum published an op-ed calling for an artist boycott of the museum. In response, eight artists pulled their work from the museum’s biennial exhibition, a crucial event for the Whitney.
In his resignation letter, Kanders writes, “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. … I joined this board to help the museum prosper. I do not wish to play a role, however inadvertent, in its demise.”
The use of tear gas in warfare is banned by the Geneva Conventions, but that didn’t stop law enforcement from using it during Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014, the Dakota Access pipeline protests in North Dakota in 2016, or against migrants attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border in 2018.
Art website Hyperallergic first reported on the connection between Kanders, Safariland and the Whitney in November 2018, building on a tweet by Santa Fe Reporter journalist Aaron Cantú. Tear gas had just been used against migrants seeking asylum in the United States, and reporters found tear gas canisters strewn along the border labeled “Safariland,” or “Defense Technologies,” which is a subsidiary of Safariland. In a now-deleted tweet, Cantú wrote:
— A M C (@aaron_con_choco) November 26, 2018
Following this revelation, more than 100 Whitney staff members signed a letter to the museum’s administration demanding that it issue a statement on Kanders’ connection to Safariland, consider asking Kanders to resign, hold a museum-wide meeting to discuss related issues, and create a clearer policy around trustee involvement in the museum.
Adam Weinberg, the Whitney’s director, responded to the staff with his own letter, which decried the growth of nationalism, racism, homophobia and xenophobia across the world, but ultimately declined to take a position against Kanders or further explore the origin of the museum’s philanthropic donations. “The Whitney is first and foremost a museum. It cannot right all the ills of an unjust world, nor is that its role,” Weinberg wrote.
Weinberg’s response set off an initial protest in December, and then a longer series in the spring, every Friday during the nine weeks leading up to the biennial’s opening. The protests were organized by Decolonize This Place, an arts activism group, and a coalition of 30 advocacy groups representing a wide range of causes, including immigration, indigenous rights, Palestinian rights and Black Lives Matter.
Many of the protesters were artists who saw Kanders as just one example of why museums need to reconsider where their money comes from, and how their donors make that money in the first place.
As the Times writes, “Mr. Kanders’s departure could embolden other protest movements that have demanded, with some success, that museums part ways with major donors or trustees.”
Multiple museums, including the Tate in Britain and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, have stopped accepting funding from the Sackler Family, the makers of Oxycontin, a drug linked to the opiate scandal.Your support matters…
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