Over 120 academics, writers, artists and critics have signed an open letter published on the blog of Verso Books, a radical publishing house based in London and New York, demanding that the Whitney Museum remove Warren B. Kanders as vice chairman of the board.
The open letter is the most recent development in an ongoing controversy surrounding the Whitney vice chair, who owns Safariland, a ‘law enforcement products company’ which manufactures tear gas canisters that were used against asylum seekers along the US-Mexico border.
‘The stakes of the demand to remove Kanders are high and extend far beyond the art world,’ the letter reads. 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.’
The letter draws links between requests to remove Kanders and recent decisions by major museums to decline funding by the Sackler Foundation for their links to the opioid crisis. ‘Saying “no” to Kanders’, the letter states, ‘opens a positive opportunity to begin a deep, and long-overdue conversation about artwashing, the role of private funding in the cultural sphere, and the accountability of institutions to the communities they claim to serve.’
The letter goes on to 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. This moment is an opportunity for the museum leadership to do the right thing, to stand on the right side of history, and to participate in a transformative process that could set the bar for other institutions across the country.’
A number of high-profile figures are amongst the signatories including artists Zach Blas and Adelita Husni-Bey; poet Anne Carson; art historians Hal Foster, Lucy Lippard and Ara H. Merjian; and academics Silvia Federici, Tavia Nyong’o and Eyal Weizman.
This is not the first open letter that has called for the removal of Kanders. In November nearly 100 staff members at the museum signed a letter asking for senior members of staff to consider his dismissal and to open a dialogue with its staff. Kanders himself responded with another open letter in which he said he was ‘not the problem the authors of the letter seek to solve’.
Whitney’s director Adam Weinberg also penned a response abdicating responsibility: ‘Even as we contend with often profound contradictions within our culture, we must live within the laws of society and observe the ‘rules’ of our Museum – mutual respect, fairness, tolerance and freedom of expression and, speaking personally, a commitment to kindness,’ he wrote.
Asked about Verso’s decision to publish the letter, blog editor John Merrick said: ‘The Verso blog is a space for publishing political pieces and analyses. When I was approached about publishing the letter I didn’t hesitate on whether or not to publish it and in doing so stand in solidarity with those calling for the removal of Warren B. Kanders. I saw this as an urgent issue that, with our institutional reach, we could offer a large platform for – something that many places of similar size may have shied away from.’