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A Letter from Artists in the Whitney Biennial (New York, US)

July 19, 2019

Dear Ru and Jane,

We respectfully ask you to withdraw our work from the Whitney Biennial for the remainder of the show. This request is intended as condemnation of Warren Kanders’ continued presence as Vice Chair of the Board. We would appreciate if you presented this letter to the Board to let them know the seriousness of the situation.

We care deeply about the Whitney. Over the years, many shows at the Museum have inspired and informed our art. 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.

We have enormous respect for you as curators and it has been a pleasure working with you.

Yours sincerely,

Korakrit Arunanondchai

Meriem Bennani

Nicole Eisenman

Nicholas Galanin

The open letter was addressed to Rujeko Hockley and Jane Panetta, curators of the 2019 Whitney Biennial. Read more here.

UPDATE

On Saturday morning, three additional artists said they were withdrawing work in solidarity. Eddie Arroyo and Agustina Woodgate announced through their gallery, Spinello Projects, of Miami, Fla., that “the request is intended as a condemnation of Warren Kanders’ continued presence as Vice-Chair of the Board and the Museum’s continued failure to respond in any meaningful way to growing pressure from artists and activists.”

A seventh artist, Christine Sun Kim, said in an email to The New York Times on Saturday that she, too, had asked for her work to be withdrawn from the Biennial.

“As a mother to a 2-year-old daughter, it terrifies me that my work is currently part of a platform that is now strongly associated with Kanders’ teargas-producing company Safariland,” she wrote to curators. “I do not want her to grow up in a world where free and peaceful expression is countered with means that have left people injured and dead.”

The eighth to ask that work be withdrawn was Forensic Architecture, a London-based research group, which produced a 10-minute video that directly addressed the controversy over Mr. Kanders, called “Triple-Chaser.”

Eyal Weizman, the founder and director of Forensic Architecture, said in an interview that the group had written to the curators on Saturday to remove “Triple-Chaser” and accompanying films. He added that Forensic Architecture asked that those films be replaced by a statement from the group about its new investigation suggesting that bullets made by a company, Sierra Bullets — which it alleges has ties to Mr. Kanders — were used by the Israeli forces against civilian protesters in Gaza in 2018.

In a written statement on Friday, Adam D. Weinberg, the Whitney’s director, acknowledged the four artists’ letter to the curators.

“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.”

Warren Kanders’s Whitney Resignation Letter

On July 25th, Warren Kanders, a vice-chairman of the Whitney Museum of American Art, sent this letter to the rest of the Whitney board announcing he was stepping down following protests over his company’s sale of tear gas.

 

2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 21, 2019 8:41 PM

    The moral and ethical challenge here is obvious but right action in this situation is more complex because of socio-economic concerns. The Museum’s viz. gaining the funds it needs to put on exhibitions, the artist’s as far as furthering career goals and exposure as well as critical attention, and the public’s in seeing cutting edge art that otherwise might not be viewed. The sharpest line is doing the “right” thing which is, of course, to withdraw in protest for the artists. For the museum, it means seriously considering who one solicits for its board in the first, second and last place. This has become a growing concern in the last decade. Museums are very slowly, foot draggingly being forced to confront their own ethics by artists, if not other board members. Institutions are always in a compromised position since as a society America does not generously fund its public institutions or offer free access to populations who simply cannot afford to go on a daily basis. Employees certainly would suffer economically, a bread and butter issue, were they to join artists and other objectors to immoral conduct on the part of the institutions. In an ideal world, not the flawed and compromised one we actually live in the solution is simple. Shut it down. But we don’t. A round of applause is due to the courageous artists who took the hit in making this statement to embarrass the museum into having to acknowledge that it is willing to take blood money in order to support culture. Certainly an immoral totally self-serving action on the museum’s part. One hopes that the pressure put on museums worldwide will result in better conduct in the future.

  2. July 20, 2019 2:52 AM

    It is intriguing that this kind of person would be welcome on the board of any Art Museum. I congratulate the artists and staff of the Whitney Museum for their diligence and courage in criticising an employer and professional entity that might be important in career terms.
    The decision made by the Whitney to engage someone of this calibre at all and then double down and retain so inappropriate a board member in context beggars belief. It demonstrates in some levels of society one can do what ever one wants without fear of consequence. An honourable person would already have stepped aside.

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