Four prominent artists featured in the 2019 Whitney Biennial—Korakrit Arunanondchai, Meriem Bennani, Nicole Eisenman, and Nicholas Galanin—demanded in a letter published Friday by Artforum that their works be removed from the show. In the letter, which was addressed to the biennial’s co-curators Rujeko Hockley and Jane Panetta, the artists cited the continued presence of Warren B. Kanders, the vice chair of the Whitney Museum’s board of trustees, as the reason for their request.
The artists’ letter explained:
We were angry when we learned of Kanders’ role as CEO of Safariland, a company that manufactures tear gas and other weapons of repression. At the time, 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. 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 provided to Artsy, the director of the Whitney, Adam D. Weinberg, said:
The Whitney respects the opinions of all the artists it exhibits and stands by their right to express themselves freely. While the Whitney is saddened by this decision, we will of course comply with the artists’ request.
The four artists’ letter comes just two days after Artforum published an essay by Hannah Black, Ciarán Finlayson, and Tobi Haslett titled “The Tear Gas Biennial,” in which they called out the artists in the biennial for not boycotting the exhibition over Kanders’s presence on the museum’s board.
Kanders owns the company Safariland, a manufacturer of military and law enforcement equipment, including tear gas canisters agents fired at asylum-seekers at the Mexico–U.S. border. Controversy over his position on the Whitney’s board intensified in the lead-up to the opening of this year’s Whitney Biennial, including weekly protests coordinated by the group Decolonize This Place, a letter signed by nearly 100 Whitney staffers calling on its leadership to consider removing Kanders, and a letter signed by nearly two thirds of the artists in the Biennial calling for Kanders’s removal. But prior to the exhibition’s opening, only one artist, Michael Rakowitz, withdrew from the Biennial in protest of Kanders’s position at the museum.