Whitney Museum Trustee Warren B. Kanders stepped down from his position as vice chairman Thursday morning after months of mounting tensions around the Whitney Biennial. The Whitney has been the subject of protests and scrutiny for its affiliation with Kanders, who owns Safariland, a major manufacturer of military and law enforcement equipment. Kanders’s company has produced tear gas used against migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border, protestors at Standing Rock and Ferguson, as well as ammunition fired on Palestinians at the Gaza border.
Kanders’s decision to resign follows escalating pushback from museum workers, artists, and activists. In November of last year, nearly 100 Whitney staff members signed a letter demanding the museum respond to reports detailing the Whitney’s connection to Safariland. According to the report, tear gas canisters and smoke grenades found between Tijuana and San Diego in November bore the Safariland logo. Adam Weinberg, director of the museum, released a statement at the time, saying that the museum “cannot right all the ills of an unjust world, nor is that its role.”
In December, Michael Rakowitz became the first artist to pull out of the Biennial in protest. In the weeks leading up to the opening, the activist group Decolonize this Place staged weekly protests in the museum’s lobby, releasing a statement that read, “We are organizing and in conversation with biennial artists on how we can pressure the museum to do the right thing, which begins with the removal of Warren Kanders”.
The Biennial opened in May to a massive tear gas sculpture parked near the entrance of the museum, an onsite protest with signs like “greed kills” and “decolonize this museum,” and a march to Kanders’s home in Greenwich Village. Last week, Korakrit Arunanondchai, Meriem Bennani, Nicole Eisenman, and Nicholas Galanin penned a letter to the show’s curators, Rujeko Hockley and Jane Panetta, demanding that their work be removed from the show. “The Museum’s inertia has turned the screw, and we refuse further complicity with Kanders and his technologies of violence,” they said.
Four additional artists: Eddie Arroyo, Agustina Woodgate, Christine Sun Kim and the collective Forensic Architecture have since followed suit. The latter, in collaboration with Praxis Films, produced a video for the Biennial highlighting a new artificial intelligence technology that could trace Safariland tear gas canisters to protests and war sites around the world.
The Whitney Biennial controversy is a part of a larger reckoning by cultural institutions regarding where their funding and support comes from. Earlier this year, the Guggenheim, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Tate museum group all announced they would stop accepting funds from the Sackler family, as members of the family have ties to Purdue Pharma, makers of Oxycontin. Last week, the Louvre removed the Sackler family name from its galleries.
In a letter to the board, Kanders, who has donated over $10 million to the Whitney, stated that the “attacks against” him risk undermining the Whitney’s mission. He added that the “politicized and oftentimes toxic environment in which we find ourselves across all spheres of public discourse, including the art community, puts the work of this Board in great jeopardy.” As the New York Times notes, it remains unclear whether or not he faced internal pressure to resign.
The Whitney has issued a press release announcing Warren Kanders’s decision to step down from his position as trustee. This article has been updated to reflect that information.