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Litmus Fracas at the Whitney: Should Museum Board Members Be Politically Vetted?

Having provocatively displayed an anti-MoMA poster in its last Biennial, the Whitney Museum probably had this coming: A protest demonstration at the museum is being planned by Decolonize This Place [DTP], an ad hoc political action group, for noon tomorrow (Sunday). It will target Whitney vice president Warren Kanders, who (as reported on Nov. 27 by Jasmine Weber in Hyperallergic) leads a company that manufactures the tear gas recently used against migrants at the Mexican border.

Here’s the scene outside the Whitney on a busy but peaceful day:

Crowd waiting to see Whitney’s Warhol show on a more peaceful day
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

In a donor-chilling gesture, DTP has targeted Kanders with online protest images derived from paintings in the current Andy Warhol retrospective (for which the Whitney’s beleaguered VP provided some financial support).

Here’s my favorite from the photos I took at that landmark exhibition:

The Warhola Clan (Andy’s original name) at the press preview
L to R: James (Andy’s nephew), Madalen (niece), Whitney Director Adam Weinberg, Abby (great-niece)
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

One of the protest group’s Warholian posters (which you can see reproduced in yesterday’s follow-up by Jasmine Weber) repetitively juxtaposes images of tear gas canisters with a party photo of Whitney director Adam Weinberg posing beside Kanders and his wife. With black photos on a mustard background, it’s a takeoff on Warhol’s riff on a widely published news image of a brutal assault by Birmingham, AL, police on black civil-rights activists.

Here’s the Warhol, which for me was the most haunting work in the current Whitney show:

Andy Warhol, “Mustard Race Riot,” 1963, Museum Brandhorst, Munich
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The planned protest at the Whitney can be seen as a turnabout-is-fair-play demonstration: As CultureGrrl readers may remember, that museum’s most recent Biennial featured a huge wall chart by another protest group, Occupy Museums, that demonized Museum of Modern Art board member Larry Fink, CEO of the BlackRock asset-management firm, who was a member of President Trump’s Strategic and Policy Forum (an advisory group of business leaders).

At MoMA, Occupy Museums had staged a protest action calling for Fink’s ouster from its board, prefiguring what we may see Sunday at the Whitney:

Protest action, Feb. 17, 2017 at MoMA
Photo from Occupy Museums website

In writing about the Biennial, I had described the Whitney’s eyebrow-raising decision to showcase an attack on a sister museum as “questionable.” Now that the shoe is on the other foot, the pronouncement that I issued then can be aptly applied to the Kanders controversy:

I don’t believe that a political litmus test [emphasis added] should be applied to museums’ board members or donors.

“Litmus test” is a phrase that also (coincidentally?) occurred to WNYC‘s business and culture editor, Charlie Herman, in connection with the Kanders fracas. He used it in a radio segment airing yesterday about the Whitney situation.

WNYC’s Charlie Herman

Charlie asked this of Hrag Vartanian, Hyperallergic‘s editor-in-chief (who was joined on the segment by Robin Pogrebin, NY Times cultural journalist):

A lot of other museums have also been questioned about people who made donations who are on their board. Should there be some sort of political litmus test [emphasis added]?

In this, Herman (perhaps unknowingly) echoed the language from my then three-day-old tweets about the controversy:

Some 100 Whitney Museum staffers evidently dissent from my distaste for subjecting trustees to political litmus tests: In a letter to the Whitney’s leadership (reproduced here by Hyperallergic), they called upon the museum’s decision-makers to “consider asking for Warren Kanders’ resignation” from the board.

To the signatories of that out-of-bounds missive, director Weinberg read the rule book:

As members of the Whitney community, we each have our critical and complementary roles: Trustees do not hire staff, select exhibitions, organize programs or make acquisitions, and staff does not appoint or remove board members [emphasis added].

Here’s Kanders’ candor, as expressed in an open letter “to the Whitney Community” (excerpted in ARTnews), issued in response to his critics:

Safariland’s role is not to determine when and how they [its products] are employed. The staff letter implies that I am responsible for the decision to use these products. I am not. That is not an abdication of responsibility; it is an acknowledgement of reality [emphasis added].

Here’s an acknowledgement of my own reality: I chatted once, briefly and inconsequentially, with Andy Warhol. I’ve experienced tear gas thrice—first, as a participant in a political protest; next, when I got too curious about a student demonstration while I was sightseeing in Paris; last, while attending a performance at the Metropolitan Opera, of all places.

As a healthy young adult back in those days, I quickly recovered. Almost a rite of passage if you were a college student in the ’60s, exposure to tear gas is generally less physically harmful than the more brutal means of crowd control then in use (see Kent State or Birmingham).

That said, there’s no question that tear-gassing innocent young children is unspeakable (see Geraldo Rivera). But Kanders, as he stated, didn’t make that call.

While we await further developments, let’s return to the litmus-test question as it applies (or doesn’t) to the Whitney Wars. Here’s the full WNYC segment:

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