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Whitney Museum Staff Demands Answers Over Vice Chair’s Relationship to Tear Gas Manufacturer

December 4, 2018

To the leadership of the Whitney Museum:

We are writing to convey our outrage upon learning that Whitney Vice Chairman Warren Kanders’ company, Safariland, is the supplier of the tear gas recently used to attack asylum seekers at the US border, and our frustration and confusion at the Whitney’s decision to remain silent on this matter. We understand this is not new information to leadership or likely to the rest of the Board, but many of us learned of the connection via the Hyperallergic article published November 27, 2018. 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.

First and foremost, some of us are deeply connected to the communities that are being directly impacted and targeted by the tear gassing at the border. For the Whitney not to acknowledge that this news may impact its staff is to assume we are separate from the issue, that it is happening somewhere else to some other people. Many of us feel the violence inflicted upon the refugees—and against mostly-POC protesters in Ferguson, and mostly-Indigenous protesters of the Dakota Access Pipeline, just two of many other instances of militarized tear gassing of unarmed citizens—much more personally than it seems to affect leadership. For many of us, the communities at the border, in Ferguson, in the Dakotas, are our communities. We read the Hyperallergic article and felt not annoyed, not intellectually upset—we felt sick to our stomachs, we shed tears, we felt unsafe.

As of Thursday morning, November 29, we have received no official internal communication addressing the Hyperallergic article. A small group of us were informed of the Whitney’s policy not to comment on the personal business of Trustees, but this is public knowledge, not a private matter of Mr. Kanders’. Setting aside the personal reactions of staff, this choice makes it difficult for staff to function well professionally. Should protests from the public or questions from visitors arise, our visitor-facing staff will be the ones answering them. Leadership choosing not to give a public (or even internal) statement displaces the labor to our visitor-facing staff, who are, generally speaking, our most diverse and lowest paid staff. You will recall similar complaints surrounding the Dana Schutz protests—and we are disappointed that the response by the leadership of this institution remains the same.

So many of us are working towards a more equitable and inclusive institution. We work to bring in artists who are immigrants and artists of color to the collection. We create programming for youth and families who are affected by current immigration policy. Upon learning of Kanders’s business dealings, many of us working on these initiatives feel uncomfortable in our positions. We cannot claim to serve these communities while accepting funding from individuals whose actions are at odds with that mission. This work which we are so proud of does not wash away these connections.

The Whitney has historically followed artists’ lead in finding our way through thorny decisions. Now we encourage the Whitney to follow the lead of its staff.

Here are our current demands:

  • For leadership to convey our concerns to the Board, including that they consider asking for Warren Kanders’ resignation.
  • A public statement from the Whitney in response to the Hyperallergic article
  • A museum wide staff forum for employees to discuss this and other issues, and related policies moving forward
  • The development and distribution of a clear policy around Trustee participation.
    • NB: Here, we intend to clarify what qualifies or disqualifies a wealthy philanthropic individual for the Board. Is there a moral line? If so, what is that line? If this was an instance of a #metoo scandal, would we call for resignation? If this was an instance of overt racism, would we call for resignation? We believe the line should be that we not be afflicted with any Board member whose work or actions are at odds with the museum’s mission.

We acknowledge the difficult position in which these demands will place leadership, and consequently the unfortunate strain any ramifications will put on our staff. But we believe in speaking truth to power, we believe in cultural institutions as community leaders and as sanctuary spaces, and we believe that there is a better way. To achieve true institutional health, measured not on the quality of our exhibitions or the number of tickets sales, but the genuine satisfaction of our audiences and staff, we need to address these uncomfortable issues. We need to interrogate our tendencies to look the other way. We are reminded of the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who said:

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.

Continuing to accept funding—even, or perhaps especially, transformative funding—from individuals who are knowingly complicit in the injustices committed on our own land and across our borders is negative peace. We demand positive peace.

Thank you, and we look forward to a productive dialogue and definitive change.

Sincerely,

  1. Dani Lencioni
  2. Elena Ketelsen González
  3. Melissa Robles
  4. Hakimah Abdul-Fattah
  5. Jeanette Gonzalez
  6. Mark Guinto
  7. Dyeemah Simmons
  8. Dina Helal
  9. Levi Friedman
  10. Deja Belardo
  11. Caroline Kelley
  12. Hunter Adams
  13. Christy Yanis
  14. Shaye Thiel
  15. Dante Fumagalli
  16. Natali Cabrera
  17. Billie Rae Vinson
  18. Emma Quaytman
  19. Marcela Guerrero
  20. Vishal Narang
  21. Leslie Castaneda
  22. Isabelle Dow
  23. Amalia Delgado Hodges
  24. Ramsay Kolber
  25. Ambika Trasi
  26. Greta Hartenstein
  27. Christie Mitchell
  28. Rujeko Hockley
  29. Kelly Long
  30. Hilary Devaney
  31. Kennia Lopez
  32. Alana Hernandez
  33. Carly Fischer
  34. Anes Sung
  35. Aliza Sena
  36. Elizabeth Knowlton
  37. Michael Moriah
  38. Claire K. Henry
  39. Clemence White
  40. Justin Allen
  41. Danielle Bias
  42. Jessica Palinski
  43. Lauren Young
  44. Margaret Kross
  45. Madison Zalopany
  46. Colin Brooks
  47. Lawrence Hernandez
  48. Nicholas DiLeonardi
  49. Jackie Foster
  50. Max Chester
  51. Jennifer Ciarleglio
  52. Emma Gluck
  53. Sasha Wortzel
  54. Lauri London Freedman
  55. Micah Musheno
  56. Joseph Shepherd
  57. Megan Heuer
  58. Karly Anderson
  59. Liz Plahn
  60. Andrew Hawkes
  61. Greg Siegel
  62. David Huerta
  63. Mike Jensen
  64. Sofia Sinibaldi
  65. Nancy Joyce
  66. Eric Preiss
  67. Max Parry
  68. Saleem Nasir Gondal
  69. Ricki Rothchild
  70. Aqsa Ahmad
  71. Jennie Goldstein
  72. Laura Phipps
  73. Andrea Ahtziri Reséndiz Gómez
  74. Melinda Lang
  75. Austin Bowes
  76. Ariel Luisa Mercado
  77. Justin Romeo
  78. Nicolas Ochart
  79. Kayla Espinal
  80. Nathaniel LaCelle-Peterson
  81. Jessica Man
  82. Luis Padilla
  83. Jaz Garner
  84. Yon Mi Kim
  85. Rachel Ninomiya
  86. Michael Brogan
  87. Jessica Pepe
  88. Jason Phillips
  89. Rebecca Walsh
  90. Kelley Loftus
  91. Chrissie Iles
  92. Lindsey O’Connor
  93. Joanna Epstein
  94. Zoe Tippl
  95. Joel Snyder

_______________________________________________________________________

Adam Weinberg, the Alice Pratt Brown Director of the Whitney Museum of American Art responded to the letter on December 3, 2018

 

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.

With respect,

Adam

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