On Friday, in an open letter posted to the blog of Verso Books, a New York–based publisher of politically engaged critical theory texts, more than 120 academics, artists, critics, and theorists demanded that the Whitney Museum remove Warren B. Kanders from his position as vice chairman of its board. The letter is the latest development in a continuing controversy surrounding Kanders’s ownership of Safariland, a defense manufacturing company that sells tear gas canisters and other products that have been used by U.S. Border Patrol agents against asylum seekers along the U.S.-Mexico border.
“The stakes of the demand to remove Kanders are high and extend far beyond the art world,” the letter reads, in part. “Alongside universities, cultural institutions like the Whitney are among the few spaces in public life today that claim to be devoted to ideals of education, creativity, and dissent beyond the dictates of the market. Yet, these institutions have been historically entwined with the power structures of settler colonialism, white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, and capitalism.” It goes on to demand that the Whitney acknowledge its role in all of these issues, and it ties the Kanders controversy to other issues affecting New York museums now, including the acceptance of funds from the Sackler family and the lack of diversity on museum boards.
Among the letter’s signees are artists Zach Blas, Adelita Husni-Bey, and Gregory Sholette; art historians Claire Bishop, Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, Arlene Davila, Hal Foster, Lucy Lippard, and Ara H. Merjian; curator Omar Berrada; academics Tavia Nyong’o and Eyal Weizman; poet Anne Carson; writer Fred Moten; and critics Barry Schwabsky and Ben Davis.
A spokesperson for the Whitney did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The letter also demands that the Whitney respect the demands of its employees, which were enumerated in another open letter signed by nearly 100 staffers at the museum in November. That letter asked that higher-ups at the museum consider removing Kanders from his post and start a dialogue with its staff. Whitney director Adam Weinberg responded with an open letter to the staff in which he asked them to start a conversation with him about the controversy, and Kanders said in a statement that he was “not the problem the authors of the letter seek to solve.”
Kanders has been on the Whitney’s board since 2006. He was listed as a “significant contributor” to the museum’s recent Andy Warhol retrospective, which closed at the end of last month.
The Verso letter also makes reference to actions held by the activist group Decolonize This Place, which has protested Kanders’s presence on the Whitney’s board. The first action led by that group was held at the Whitney in December, and it has since been followed by a planned series of actions, held weekly on Fridays in the run-up to the Whitney Biennial. (The series kicked off last month with a protest in the Warhol show; the third event in the series is planned for this evening.)
“There are no easy solutions to the current crisis of the Whitney, and there is no blueprint for decolonization,” the letter says at one point. “But there is a desire to confront these problems across a broad spectrum of the arts, academia, and grassroots community groups. As mobilizations and actions continue, we call upon educators and cultural workers of all kinds, including artists in the Whitney Biennial and in the collection of the museum, to join us in taking a stand against Kanders.”
The letter, along with the list of signatories, is available in full on Verso’s website.