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The Whitney Museum and Warren B. Kanders: A Timeline of the Controversy

A poster produced by Decolonize This Place in protest of Warren B. Kanders.

COURTESY DECOLONIZE THIS PLACE

Since November 2018, activists have been calling on the Whitney Museum in New York to consider breaking ties with Warren B. Kanders, who serves as the museum board’s vice chairman and whose defense manufacturing company, Safariland, produced the tear-gas canisters used against asylum seekers along the U.S.-Mexico border. Below, ARTnews has assembled a timeline of the story. This post will be updated as new developments occur.

1996

Warren B. Kanders invests in American Body Armor, a defense manufacturing company. The following year, the company becomes Armor Holdings, Inc., a Jacksonville, Florida–headquartered operation, and Kanders serves as its chairman and CEO.

1999

Armor Holdings, Inc. acquires Safariland, a defense manufacturing company, for $41 million.

2006

Kanders joins the Whitney Museum’s board.

2007

BAE Systems, a British defense and security company, buys Safariland for $4.1 billion.

 

Protesters at Decolonize This Place’s action at the Whitney Museum in New York on December 9, 2018.

ALEX GREENBERGER/ARTNEWS

July 30, 2012

Kanders announces that he has reacquired Safariland for $124 million from BAE Systems. Kanders, who becomes chairman and CEO of the company, says in a release that Safariland has a “tremendous track record of commitment to safety, reliability and superior product design.” In an interview from the time, Kanders explains that he’d been trying to buy back Safariland for years, but the purchase had been delayed by a federal investigation into Armor Holdings’s former vice president, Richard Bistrong, who had been accused of paying bribes to foreign organizations in order to receive contracts for defense gear.

November 12, 2018

The Whitney’s Andy Warhol retrospective opens to the public. Kanders is listed as a “significant contributor.”

November 25, 2018

Tear-gas canisters are launched at migrants along the border between San Diego, California, and Tijuana, Mexico. Reporting by journalist Patrick Timmons reveals that the canisters bear Safariland logos.

November 27, 2018

A Hyperallergic report details Kanders’s Whitney connections.

 

Banners at a town hall held at Cooper Union, New York, on January 26, 2019.

ALEX GREENBERGER/ARTNEWS

November 30, 2018

In response to the Hyperallergic article, nearly 100 Whitney staff members sign a letter addressed to museum leadership that urges them to consider asking for Kanders’s resignation. “The Whitney has historically followed artists’ lead in finding our way through thorny decisions,” they write. “Now we encourage the Whitney to follow the lead of its staff.” Among the signatories are curators Marcela Guerrero, Rujeko Hockley, and Chrissie Iles.

December 3, 2018

Kanders and Whitney director Adam Weinberg respond to the Whitney staff’s letter to leadership. In a lengthy statement, Kanders says he is “not the problem the authors of the letter seek to solve,” and in his note to Whitney workers, Weinberg makes a plea for conversation.

December 6, 2018

Decolonize This Place, an activist group that has previously led protests at the Brooklyn Museum, the American Museum of Natural History, and elsewhere, announces that it will hold a protest at the Whitney. The group also releases a series of signs that intermingle advertisements related to the Whitney’s Warhol show, photographs of violence on the U.S.-Mexico border, and pictures of Kanders.

December 9, 2018

An action organized by Decolonize This Place is staged at the Whitney. Protesters arrive at the entrance and then move into the lobby, where so much sage is burned that the New York Fire Department is called. The action ties Kanders’s involvement in Safariland to larger histories of colonialism, racism, and queer erasure.

 

Decolonize This Place’s protest at the Whitney Museum in New York on December 9, 2018.

ALEX GREENBERGER/ARTNEWS

December 19, 2018

Posters by Decolonize This Place are distributed by artist Sibyl Kempson at a performance at the museum.

January 23, 2019

The activist collective W.A.G.E. issues an open letter urging 2019 Whitney Biennial participants to “demand to be paid for the content they provide and withhold that content until the demands of Whitney staff are met.”

January 26, 2019

Decolonize This Place, working with Chinatown Art Brigade and W.A.G.E., holds a town hall meeting at Cooper Union in which attendees devise strategies for continuing their protests at the Whitney. Among the attendees are artists Lyle Ashton Harris and Victoria Sobel and art historian David Joselit.

 

A poster for Decolonize This Place’s “Nine Weeks of Art and Action.”

COURTESY DECOLONIZE THIS PLACE

February 25, 2019

The Whitney Biennial artist list is announced. Some 75 artists are lined up to participate, though the New York Times reports that one—Michael Rakowitz—declined to participate in the exhibition as a protest against Kanders. The Times also reveals that, for the first time, the museum will pay artists in the biennial a W.A.G.E.-recommended fee of $1,500. The collective Forensic Architecture, which is one of the participants in the biennial, later says on Twitter that they will respond to the Kanders imbroglio.

February 27, 2019

In advance of the 2019 Whitney Biennial, Decolonize This Place announces plans to stage “Nine Weeks of Art and Action,” a weekly series of protest-minded events at the museum each Friday. The first protest is planned for March 22.

 

A protest held by Decolonize This Place held at the Whitney Museum on March 22, 2019. Speaking here is Alicia Boyd, of the group Movement to Protect the People.

KATHERINE MCMAHON

March 22, 2019

Decolonize This Place kicks off its “Nine Weeks of Art and Action” series. Joining forces with 30 activist groups, Decolonize This Place leads a protest in the Whitney’s Warhol retrospective, with banners held and speeches recited in front of the Pop artist’s 25-foot-long painting Camouflage Last Supper (1986). After marching through the exhibition, the group continues protesting outside the museum, where the names of the participating activist groups are projected onto its exterior.

March 29, 2019

Decolonize This Place holds the second protest in its “Nine Weeks of Art and Action” series. Attendees meet up in the Whitney’s lobby, where they unfurl banners and sing songs. “This is about love, this is about land, this is about liberation,” one activist says. Kanders’ name is barely mentioned.

April 5, 2019

Ahead of the third event in Decolonize This Place’s “Nine Weeks of Art and Action” series, Verso Books, a New York–based publisher, posts an open letter to its blog regarding the Kanders controversy. Signed by art historian Lucy Lippard, poet Anne Carson, writer Fred Moten, and around 120 more, the open letter asks the Whitney to respect the demands of the staff and remove Kanders from his position.

 

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