In late November, a gathering of migrants at the US-Mexico border led to the tear-gassing of some of the participants. Some activists considered this a human rights violation, and reporters began to dig into the origin of this particular tear-gas. It turns out to have been made by Safariland LLC, a holster and body-armor company led by Warren B. Kanders.
What makes this an art world story is that Kanders is also the vice chairman of the Whitney Museum. On November 27, Jasmine Weber published an expose in HyperAllergic detailing the uncomfortable juxtaposition between an art museum that has made a name for itself as the most woke and socially active and a major donor and officer who is involved in the production of an instrument that has been used to put down protests not only at the Mexican border but has also been put to use by police in American hotspots like Oakland, Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri. Major protests arose at the Whitney, with demonstrators calling on Kanders to resign or be dismissed. According to Forbes, a letter signed by 95 Whitney employees said “they did not feel comfortable working for the museum as long as a defense contractor like Kanders served on the museum’s board.”
The show’s guest-host Charlie Herman welcomed Weber and Hyperallergic’s editor-in-chief and co-founder, Hrag Vartanian, to discuss the story’s resonance in light of the controversy that lately seems to have engulfed an increasing number of venerable art institutions, including The Guggenheim and The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Yesterday’s broadcast is another step into the mainstream by an increasingly strong movement that calls for the scrutiny of the relationship between the donors and the museums.
The topic of “artwashing”— the buying of the art world’s imprimatur to give a virtuous sheen to the dubious activities of a donor’s day job—has emerged as a flashpoint around the art world. In fact, Kanders’ response to the letter requesting his resignation seeks to bolster his progressive credentials: “My involvement with the Whitney also reflects my personal values around diversity, inclusion, access and equality. In fact, just last month, I co-organized a series of exhibitions, installations and public programs at Brown University entitled ‘On Protest, Art & Activism.'”
Kanders criticized the Whitney staffers for failing to seek his perspective before publishing their letter. The Fine Art Globe has reached out to Kanders for comment but he has not responded to our requests.
Kanders, a patron of the arts, is also a significant supporter of the Andy Warhol show, which is currently on view at the museum. With the Whitney Biennial set to open on May 17, expect this issue to continue to gather momentum.