With a week to go before the May 17 grand opening of the Whitney Museum of American Art biennial, visitors may have expected to glimpse a preview of the 75 creators whose inclusion in this show marks them as official artists to watch.
Instead they were greeted by 200 or so enthusiastic protesters decrying the presence on the museum’s board of its vice chairman, Warren B. Kanders, as well as greater sensitivity to progressive political concerns in general. For his day job, Kanders serves as chief executive of Safariland, which makes law-enforcement products like tear gas that this evening’s protesters decried for being used, as Fine Art Globe has previously reported, everywhere from the Mexican border to American hotspots like Oakland, Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri.
About a dozen police officers mostly waited on the south side of Gansevoort Street while indignant speakers, some holding Palestinian flags (because, intersectionality) and others holding signs claiming to have been personally victimized by the deployment of Safariland products, chanted, “Hey hey ho ho, Warren Kanders got to go!” The chants soon took on a more generally anti law-enforcement timbre. Leaders issued a call-and-response that included “Say no no to the po po” and “These pigs have got to go.”
According to the New York Times, only one of the invited artists — Chicago-based painter Michael Rakowitz — withdrew from participating in the Biennial. Still, almost 50 of the 75 artists who accepted the museum’s invitation have endorsed the much-publicized movement demanding Kanders be removed.
Hand-wringing about the funding of private cultural institutions is not new. It almost invariably takes the shape of generally progressive cultural arbiters questioning the appropriateness of funding by those associated with more conservative pursuits. That was the dynamic at play when Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts renamed its ballet facility The David H. Koch Theater, following a major gift from the longtime benefactor and major donor to conservative political causes.
Indeed, the wealthy donors who fund just about all private cultural institutions tend to have accumulated that kind of capital pursuing activities that do not jibe with sectors of the public who are newly woke and active since the election.
Other Whitney Directors Scrutinized
But the Whitney seems to have come under particularly intense and sustained fire for these connections. Just this morning on WNYC, which seems to have taken special glee in the kerfuffle, HyperAllergic writer Zachary Small made another appearance to detail the controversy. Small discussed his story, which detailed other Whitney board members whose wealth is dubiously deployed. Nancy Carrington Crown owns a big chunk of defense giant General Dynamics, which has been excoriated by immigration activists for running child detention centers. Pamella DeVos comes under similar fire for being a sister-in-law of Betsy DeVos, who serves in the Trump cabinet as Secretary of Education.
The protests, led by Decolonize This Place, seem to be growing in both size and intensity as the big event approaches. For the artists viewing the chance to debut on a major stage, it remains to be seen whether these attention grabbing protests will overshadow or enhance their art.