After months of protests and artists withdrawing from the 2019 Whitney Biennial as part of an organized boycott, Warren Kanders, the owner of weapons manufacturer Safariland, has finally stepped down from the board of trustees of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City.
Kanders' role as vice-chairman of the Whitney came under scrutiny this past November when art and culture website Hyperallergic revealed that his company was responsible for the manufacturer of tear gas canisters that were used against migrants at the US/Mexico border and, more recently, against protestors in Puerto Rico.
This news, and the Whitney's somewhat tone deaf response to it (“The Whitney is first and foremost a museum. It cannot right all the ills of an unjust world, nor is that its role," the museum's director Adam D. Weinberg wrote in December) , prompted one artist—Michael Rakowitz—to withdraw from the Biennial before it opened this past May, and inspired eight others, including Christine Sun Kim and Forensic Architecture, to ask for their works to be removed from the exhibition. There have also been multiple protests and, after the Biennial opened, a march to Kanders' New York townhouse.
Some artists, including Portland-based sound artist and musician Marcus Fischer, opted to keep their work in the Biennial. In an email to ArtNews, Fischer explained that he was contacted by Jane Panetta and Rujeko Hockley, the co-curators of the Biennial, about the Kanders news this past November, and offered to find a new spot for Ascent/Dissent, his site-specific piece that is situated on a staircase in the museum named for Kanders and his wife Allison.
“I opted to stay, and instead created a work that honored the intent and memory of Mr. Gonzalez-Torres, and also stood in protest of Kanders and his place in that building. For that to go silent would not be true to the intent of my piece, and for that reason it will also remain in place.”
At first Kanders only responded after 100 Whitney employees signed a letter in which they demanded that the museum ask for his resignation. "The staff letter implies that I am responsible for the decision to use these products," Kanders wrote. "I am not. That is not an abdication of responsibility, it is an acknowledgement of reality." He went on to say that Safariland only sells its products, which includes machine gun mounts, body armor, and a range of chemical grenades, to "government approved" entities.
As the protests and calls for his removal continued, Kanders realized that, much like the products that has made him a millionaire, he was doing more harm than good and tendered his resignation today. As first reported by the New York Times, the 61-year-old told the board in a letter that "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.”