The Whitney Museum of American Art. Photo by MusikAnimal, via Wikimedia Commons.
Nearly 100 staffers of the Whitney Museum of American Artm in New York signed a petition demanding a statement from leadership regarding a vice chairman of the museum who owns two defense manufacturers that produced the tear gas canisters and smoke bombs border agents fired at asylum-seekers at at U.S.–Mexico border. The letter came three days after Hyperallergic published a story detailing how the Whitney board member, Warren B. Kanders, purchased the manufacturer Safariland in 2012 for $124 million, and how the company’s products were being used by authorities in the migrant crisis, according to reporters on the scene. The list of signatories on the letter includes prominent curators of the Whitney, who are demanding that director Adam D. Weinberg issue a response and that the board considers asking for the resignation of Kanders in light of these revelations.
The letter, published by Hyperallergic Friday, reads in part:
We also understand the nuanced and vital relationship any nonprofit has to its Board. But we believe that this recently aired knowledge about Mr. Kanders’ business is demonstrative of the systemic injustice at the forefront of the Whitney’s ongoing struggle to attract and retain a diverse staff and audience. And because we feel strongly about this, we believe it is our responsibility to speak to this injustice directly, even as the Whitney has chosen not to. To remain silent is to be complicit.
In addition to asking for a public statement and the consideration that Kanders be asked to resign, the signatories requested a staff-wide forum to discuss these issues, as well as a policy that weighs whether participation in certain industries and philanthropy disqualify a trustee from sitting on the board.
Hyperallergic updated its story Friday afternoon to report that a group of Whitney Museum staff connected to the letter had sent along the message that they had “received a positive response from leadership early this morning, and look forward to continued discussion.”
In response to an inquiry from Artsy, a Whitney Museum spokesperson forwarded the following email, sent by Weinberg to the Whitney’s staff and board on Sunday. It does not pledge any immediate action, but rather promises to continue “working and meeting with you in the days ahead.” The full letter reads:
Dear Staff and Trustees,
I write to you now as one community, one family—the Whitney. Together, for the last fifteen years, we have created a place of great promise, hopes and dreams, often against great odds. Our community united in common purpose to reimagine a home for artists in the 21st century where they can envision, experiment, struggle, risk and even protest openly, unencumbered and uncensored. We have fashioned this protected space together through mutual trust, respect, openness and discussion even when opinions differ. We respect the right to dissent as long as we can safeguard the art in our care and the people in our midst. As one director colleague describes the contemporary museum, it is “a safe space for unsafe ideas.” This is the democracy of art.
We truly live in difficult times. People are suffering in our city, the US and around the world: nationalism has risen to unimaginable heights; homelessness is rampant; refugee crises abound; people of color, women and LGBTQ communities feel under attack; and the environment grows more precarious. All these tragedies have understandably led to tremendous sadness and frustration, quick tempers, magnified rhetoric and generational conflict.
Like many contemporary cultural institutions, the Whitney Museum has always been a space for the playing out of disparate and conflicting ideas. Even as we are idealistic and missionary in our belief in artists—as established by our founder Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney—the Whitney is first and foremost a museum. It cannot right all the ills of an unjust world, nor is that its role. Yet, I contend that the Whitney has a critical and urgent part to play in making sure that unheard and unwanted voices are recognized. Through our openness and independence we can foreground often marginalized, unconventional and seemingly unacceptable ideas not presented in other sites in our culture.
I am proud of the work we are doing to present progressive and challenging artists and exhibitions for vast audiences, including this year alone: David Wojnarowicz, an outcast voice silenced much too early; Zoe Leonard, a poet of the unseen and unsung; Pacha, Llaqta, Wasichay, a chance to experience powerful new Latinx voices; Programmed, a radical rethinking of art and technology; Mary Corse, a giant of her generation often overlooked because of her gender; Grant Wood, who worked in other challenging times; Between the Waters, a view of young artists grappling with environmental precariousness; Nick Mauss’s meditation on dance, fashion, design and untold queer histories; and now, Andy Warhol, whose work continues to interrogate and upend how we think of the world today. Beyond that we have presented a compelling array of artist-centric educational and community programs that reach increasingly diverse publics from our neighborhood and afar.
We at the Whitney have created a culture that is unique and vibrant—but also precious and fragile. This “space” is not one I determine as director but something that we fashion by mutual consent and shared commitment on all levels and in many ways. As members of the Whitney community, we each have our critical and complementary roles: trustees do not hire staff, select exhibitions, organize programs or make acquisitions, and staff does not appoint or remove board members. Our truly extraordinary environment, which lends such high expectations, is something we must preserve collectively. Even as we contend with often profound contradictions within our culture, we must live within the laws of society and observe the “rules” of our Museum—mutual respect, fairness, tolerance and freedom of expression and, speaking personally, a commitment to kindness. It is so easy to tear down but so much more difficult to build and sustain.
To those of you, and I trust it is nearly all, who want to move forward despite some significant differences of opinion, I am here as your partner, to lead and to work hard every day to make the Whitney, and possibly the world, a better place. I accept that there may be a few of you who are not inclined to do so, but I would like nothing more than to continue this journey together. We have important work to do. As Flora Miller Biddle, the granddaughter of our founder, said several years ago, “The Whitney Museum is an idea...” This idea, painstakingly built for close to ninety years, has been bequeathed to us. It is a vulnerable idea, now ours to nurture.
I am deeply grateful to our extremely committed, thoughtful and generous board, as well as to our talented and dedicated staff.
I look forward to working and meeting with you in the days ahead.