The Whitney Biennial’s latest controversy on their rap sheet is a particularly bad one. This time, the curatorial intention is not too experimental or the content too political. You know, the good kind of controversies. This is not so much the case last iteration when the inclusion of a work by Dana Schutz depicting the mutilated face of Emmett Till was highly condemned by many who saw it as an exploitation of an excruciating and defining moment in African American history.
For the 2019 edition, one artist refused to take part, and eight others are withdrawing their work. Why, you ask? Because they feel like the Whitney has failed to adequately respond to the Warren Kanders controversy. Kanders is the majority owner and CEO of Safariland, who has made a hundreds-of-millions fortune manufacturing and selling stuff like body armour, riot gear and tear gas. Amongst others, the latter mercilessly is used on hundreds of Central American asylum seekers, including children on the US border and against Native Americans protesting a pipeline at Standing Rock, and in Ferguson during the riots over a police officer’s killing of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown. During his leisure time, he sits on the board of the Whitney Museum of American Art as vice president. According to Hannah Black, Ciarán Finlayson, and Tobi Haslett, he managed to obtain this position by making tax-deductible donations to support exhibitions at the museum.
So what happened? The link between the Whitney, Kanders and the way he makes his money has been exposed since 2015, when Hyperallergic in the wake of the police killing of Freddie Gray, Feigenbaum wrote “He makes money off of the increasing militarization of the US police, and then he gives that money — some of it, anyway — to a major art museum.” It didn’t seem to make that many waves back then. Fast forward to November 2018, Hyperallergic broke the story about how Kanders’ Safariland’s teargas was used on the US border and the story got picked up by multiple news outlets.
Within days, more than one hundred Whitney staff members signed a letter to the museum’s leadership demanding that they respond to the article’s allegations. “Upon learning of Kanders’s business dealings, many of us working on these initiatives feel uncomfortable in our positions,” it explains. “We cannot claim to serve these communities while accepting funding from individuals whose actions are at odds with that mission.” Kanders’ responds and fully deflects the blame. “Safariland’s role as a manufacturer is to ensure the products work, as expected, when needed. Safariland’s role is not to determine when and how they are employed.” Furthermore, he focusses on how the company manufactures protective body armour and bomb suits. He also states: “I believe that the politicization of every aspect of public life, including commercial organizations and cultural institutions, is not productive or healthy.”
In March 2019, the activist organisation Decolonize This Place launched “Nine Weeks of Art and Action”, organising large scale protests at the Whitney to demand the removal of Kanders. The Whitney didn’t comment.
This situation has put the invited artists for the biennial in a very tricky position. They have a lot to gain from participating in the biennial, it is one of the most important exhibitions in the works, so, in declining, they have a lot to lose. In the moments leading up to the opening of the Whitney Biennial, it became known that one invited artist, Michael Rakowitz, withdrew from the Biennial before it opened. Moreover, nearly 50 participants in the show have added their names to the open letter demanding Kanders’ removal. The Whitney 2019 biennial opened, got mixed reviews and the group Decolonize this Place and its ally coalition of grassroots organizations kept on protesting. It also included Forensic Architecture, who now have withdrawn, presented a moving image “Triple-Chaser,” about the violence and Safariland’s implication in war crimes at the Israeli-Palestinian border. Still, nothing really happened from Whitney’s leadership part.
And then last week, a Korakrit Arunanondchai, Meriem Bennani, Nicole Eisenman, and Nicholas Galanin wrote a letter addressed to Rujeko Hockley and Jane Panetta, curators of the 2019 Whitney Biennial to respectfully request a withdrawal of their work. Following their announcement, Eddie Arroyo, Christine Sun Kim, Agustina Woodgate, and Forensic Architecture announced their withdrawal as well.
It sais a lot about Kanders’ MO that even after all the backlash and endless demands to leave, he still maintains his post. He doesn’t care. [Edit: in the meanwhile, he has stepped down, but only after multiple artists stepped down.]
The predicament the Whitney got itself into is widespread and is the result of a complex history: arts funding. Whether the arts like it or not, no matter which way you twist it or turn it, art production is dependent on money. Artists needs money to create art (to buy supplies or you know food and a roof) and the places that show art are anything but an a-financial vacuum. I can get all the way back in history how art and kings and churches and governments got entangled, how the earliest museums were Wunderkammern (cabinets of wonders) where rich peeps showcased their collection of objects, etc, but I don’t want to make this too complex.
In the US, modern art museums like the Whitney and MoMA were founded around 1930 by members of rich families like Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller and started out in small spaces. How bigger the institutions got, how more money it needed. Public arts funding in the US is restricted and the agency in charge of is, the NEA, does not seem to sponsor large institutions. I don’t know exactly why, how and when families got involved in museums but over the years, the philanthropy by the rich enabled US museums to flourish. They acquired artworks for the museum, donated millions of dollars for renovation, or annually support the museum so they can pay their staff and pay for their programs. It’s also important to note that since the 1970s, corporations were gradually solicited for donations and they used this to the hope of softening public disapproval of their work. For example, the Phillip Morris Company and BP have been sponsoring arts institutions for decades. It’s important to note, as Jerry Saltz has written, is that this is not an isolated case. Probably all American museums, arguable due to lack of public funding, are driven by “toxic philanthropy.” And even an exuberance of subsidy doesn’t keep dirty money out of museums worldwide.
Why does it matter where institutions get their money from? People have argued that it’s better to use dirty money for art because otherwise it might be used to buy another private plane. And art institutions are costly endeavours and they have to get their money from somewhere. Well, there are some crucial ethical implications. When companies such as BP or company owners such as Kanders or the Sackler family act as philanthropists, giving away money to museums and universities, having wings devoted to them, it actually contributes to a better image of them. Instead of the truthful image: oil companies such as BP are wreaking havoc on the planet, and the Sackler family made a multi-billion fortune while helping cause the opioid epidemic, which takes tens of thousands of American lives each year. Speaking volumes is Kanders’ statement in his response to the Whitney staff letter: “I believe that my record speaks for itself, both with regard to my philanthropic activities as well as the businesses and institutions that I associate with.”
We don’t want to paint those kinds of people in a better light right? I didn’t think so.
[UPDATE: On Thursday 25th of July, Warren B. Kanders resigning from his position as vice-chair of the board of the Whitney Museum]