Warren B. Kanders, the CEO of the defense-manufacturing company Safariland has stepped down from the Whitney Museum’s board of directors following months of protests.
The tear gas the company manufactures has been linked to use on migrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border and peaceful protesters in Puerto Rico and at Standing Rock. Kanders also has a stake in Sierra Bullets, a company that sells high-velocity ammunition Israeli soldiers have allegedly used against Palestinian protesters in Gaza.
As the Whitney Biennial event approaches, protesters at the museum have been calling to #DecolonizeThisPlace. Upon Kanders’ announcement, they celebrated on Twitter, saying they welcomed his resignation, and remarking that the move symbolizes a “seismic shift” in the art world.
“The targeted campaign of attacks against me and my company that has been waged these past several months has threatened to undermine the important work of the Whitney,” Kanders wrote in a letter upon his resignation. “I joined this board to help the museum prosper. I do not wish to play a role, however inadvertent, in its demise.”
Prior to Kanders’ resignation, eight artists withdrew their works from the Whitney Biennial in protest to his position on the board. The protests and Kanders’ subsequent resignation reveal a trend in the art world of protesters demanding support for museums does not have roots in “dirty money.”
Similarly, in May, the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced it would stop accepting gifts from members of the Sackler family, the founders of the pharmaceutical company that has made millions manufacturing OxyContin and is thus linked to the opioid crisis.
While activists celebrated the decision as part of a movement that places ethics before money in the liberal, often socially-active world of art, others questioned how far this movement will go.
In an interview with ArtNews, the Whitney’s director, David Gordon said that if museums only rely on money from companies no one finds objectionable, they can miss out on large sums of funds.
“If you become ultra-pure about who you take your money from, you end up diminishing the ability of the museum to be effective in the public arena,” he said. Mr. Kanders has not done anything illegal. He didn’t fire the tear-gas. He’s in a business that makes tear-gas. Should we take a position that anybody who manufactures things can be used in a way you don’t like be banned from the museum? We should sit down and discuss it.”
As of now, there are no industry standards regarding required ethics of donors, but many artists are calling for them. Performance artist Andrea Fraser, whose work examines and critiques large institutions, spoke to ArtNews, saying she believes cultural institutions should make sure their sources of funds do not undermine their mission and values.
“They need to ensure that they have language requiring that board members’ activities are consistent with, and should not undermine, the organization’s mission and values, and they need to ensure that they have mechanisms to remove board members who fail to meet that standard,” she said. “Then they need to have a serious discussion about what those mission and values are.”