The embattled vice chairman of the Whitney Museum of American Art stepped down Thursday, amid widespread criticism of his company's controversial sale of tear gas to the military and to law enforcement. In a resignation letter posted by the NY Times, Warren B. Kanders blamed a "politicized and oftentimes toxic environment," and "a single narrative" cooked up by protesters with an "insidious agenda," for forcing his hand.
In the letter, dated July 25th, Kanders wrote:
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. I joined this board to help the museum prosper. I do not wish to play a role, however inadvertent, in its demise.
Long before I found success in business, I had a love and appreciation for art. My wife, Allison, also shares this passion. The power of art lies in its ability to express, to push boundaries, and to ask questions. Art is not intended to force one-sided answers, or to suppress independent thinking. And yet, these recent events have illustrated how a single narrative, created and sustained by groups with a much larger and more insidious agenda, can overwhelm that spirit. The vibrant art community that this institution has been able to support since the days of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney is clearly at risk.
Allison Kanders also abdicated her position as co-chair.
According to the Times, Warren Kanders joined the Whitney's board in 2006, and has gifted the museum more than $10 million over the years—money that may have come, at least in part, from a military supply company in Jacksonville, Florida called Safariland. Kanders is Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Safariland, which sells bulletproof vests, gun holsters, and various other weaponry. It also sells tear gas; specifically, the tear gas U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents used on hundreds of Central American asylum seekers in November. As Hyperallergic reported at the time, Safariland also sells to various police forces nationwide—including in Ferguson, Missouri (where you have surely seen photos of tear gas in action); Baltimore, Maryland (ditto); and Oakland, California (ditto).
When the news about the conflict at the border broke, however, 100 Whitney employees signed a letter insisting the museum acknowledge its link, through Kanders, to Safariland. "We believe that this recently aired knowledge about Mr. Kanders' business is demonstrative of the systemic injustice at the forefront of the Whitney's ongoing struggle to attract and retain a diverse staff and audience," they wrote. "And because we feel strongly about this, we believe it is our responsibility to speak to this injustice directly, even as the Whitney has chosen not to. To remain silent is to be complicit."
In December, Chicago artist Michael Rakowitz dropped out of the Whitney Biennial. As calls escalated for Kanders to step down, another eight artists asked the museum to pull their work from the Biennial over the past week.
Kanders has so far insisted that he is not "the problem" critics of the border policy, and policy brutality, "seek to solve." And so far, the Whitney has appeared to support him, but across the board, museum funding is under the microscope. For example: The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Natural History Museum in New York, and the Tate Modern and the National Portrait Gallery in London, have stopped accepting money from the Sackler family, whose pharmaceutical company played a founding role in the opioid crisis.
As the Times notes, we don't yet know whether or not Kanders left under pressure from the Whitney. Gothamist has contacted the museum for comment, and we will update if we hear back.
Update: A Whitney spokesperson provided Gothamist with a statement from the board on Kanders's resignation. It does not clarify whether or not the departure was voluntary, but does note that, "in informing the Board, Mr. Kanders expressed his sadness and disappointment over what was an extremely difficult decision."
"For more than a decade, Warren and Allison Kanders have devoted themselves to supporting the Whitney," the museum's president, Richard M. DeMartini, said. "Their contributions in the form of time, works of art, and financial donations have played a meaningful role for the institution. Our deepest thanks to both of them for their devotion and service to the Whitney."