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Kanders Slander: Trustees Resign Amidst Wreckage of Whitney Museum’s “Triple Chaser” Fiasco UPDATED

The persistent resistance got its way: As reported today by Robin Pogrebin and Elizabeth Harris of the NY Times, Warren Kanders, whose weapons-related business activities were attacked by protesters, has resigned (effective immediately) from the Whitney Museum’s board.

Therein lies a big problem, not just for the Whitney, but for the museum field as a whole. Already another Whitney trustee, mega-donor Kenneth Griffin [CEO of Citadel, the investment firm], has left the board in solidarity with Kanders. [UPDATE: According to an updated story in the NY Times, he apparently changed his mind and is staying on the board. See below.]

In their post-mortem statement on Kanders’ resignation, the Whitney’s president, Richard DeMartini, and its director, Adam Weinberg, were effusive in their praise for their board’s now ex-vice chairman—a strong show of support that should have been provided when it really mattered—while Kanders was under attack. Now it’s a meaningless eulogy.

Line of visitors waiting to get into the current Whitney Biennial
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Instead of hemorrhaging artists, the Whitney may start hemorrhaging trustees. In an update to this morning’s post, the Times reported that “another prominent board member, the hedge fund titan Kenneth C. Griffin, stepped down hours later, citing what he described as the museum’s left-wing tilt.”

UPDATE: The Times revised its piece again later today, saying that “Griffin apparently reconsidered, and decided to stay. “I’m a trustee of the Whitney and excited to be on the board,” he said in a telephone interview Thursday evening. When pressed about what had transpired earlier in the day, Mr. Griffin said, “I think board conversations are private,” adding, “I haven’t resigned.” Who knows what tomorrow may bring!?!

Eight artists had said they were withdrawing from the Whitney Biennial, but reversed their decision with the announcement of Kanders’ departure.

Here are some excerpts from the Whitney’s belated expression of appreciation for Kanders:

As a member of the museum’s building committee, Kanders was an early and active advocate for the Renzo Piano building and a strong supporter of the Whitney’s return downtown (my link, not the Whitney’s) to serve a younger and more diverse audience, which he considers instrumental to the long-term success of the Whitney.

Together, Warren and Allison Kanders have donated more than a dozen works to the Whitney….In addition to their generous art and financial contributions Warren and Allison led several fundraising campaigns for the institution, helping to raise millions of dollars for the museum since 2007….

The Board wishes to express its profound gratitude to Warren and Allison Kanders for their extraordinary generosity, and its deep appreciation for their dedication to the Whitney Museum of American Art and their part in helping to secure the long-term future of the museum [emphasis added].

That “secure” future may now be in jeopardy.

While waving the white flag, the CEO of Safariland, a manufacturer of tear gas grenades, didn’t go quietly. Kanders fired off this parting salvo in his resignation letter to the museum’s board, which was published in the online version of the Times article:

Unfortunately, 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….

The politicized and oftentimes toxic environment in which we find ourselves across all spheres of public discourse, including the art community, puts the work of this Board in great jeopardy. I hope you assume the responsibility that your position bestows upon you and find the leadership to maintain the integrity of this museum [emphasis added].

Socially conscious protesters (including some members of the Whitney Museum’s own staff and the artists who had announced, then rescinded, their intention to withdraw their works from the museum’s current Biennial) had faulted the museum for not taking prompt, forceful action to expel Kanders.

I’d fault the museum’s leadership for exactly the opposite—not being sufficiently tough in promptly resisting the resisters and supporting the supporter. Its posture of reluctant tolerance for the protesters’ ill-conceived dissent was ultimately self-defeating: There may now be destructive repercussions for the museum’s programs, its staff relations and, especially, its relationship with its board. Who would want to be a benefactor of a museum that stood by while one of its most devoted supporters got dragged through the mud?

This was not a Sackler situation or even a Philip Morris situation, to name major museum donors who were purveyors of dangerously addictive products that had been knowingly misrepresented to the public. As I said here, willful deception in marketing a harmful product in an effort to boost profits (while recklessly ruining lives) should be a deal-killer for museum sponsorship.

Don’t get me wrong: I despise the anti-migrant policy that has caused physical harm to desperate asylum-seekers and their children. (For what it’s worth, I myself have been tear gassed three times, as explained near the bottom of this post.) But the appropriate target for protests against the federal government’s immigration policies is the federal government, not museums. Kanders’ products are not the enemy; those who misuse them are.

As a journalist, I’d be courting a libel suit if I brashly alleged criminality without backing up that charge with solid, convincing support. Such concerns didn’t stop the online publication Hyperallergic from publishing this headline for a May 13 piece co-authored by Hrag Vartanian, its editor-in chief, and Jasmine Weber, an editor at the publication:

Forensic Architecture’s Project at Whitney Biennial Reveals Museum Vice Chair’s Company May Be Complicit in War Crimes [emphasis added]

War Crimes?!? That charge was hurled in Kanders’ direction as part of “Triple Chaser,” the ominous Forensic Architecture video screened at the Biennial. Those incendiary words caused me to do a triple-take:

—First, that loaded phrase is jarring when detonated in the hushed screening room of a museum.

—Second, no detailed explanation was provided in the video as to why “the actions of Israeli soldiers during that time may constitute war crimes or crimes against humanity” (words uttered by the narrator, David Byrne of Talking Heads fame). If you’re going to make a damning accusation, you had better back it up.

—Third (and, to me, the most startling) was the Whitney’s willingness to subject one of its own trustees to public attack in the context of its own exhibition program. I can understand that a museum’s leaders don’t want to be seen as repressing free artistic expression: “The Whitney respects the opinions of all the artists it exhibits and stands by their right to express themselves freely,” its director, Adam Weinberg, has written about this contretemps.

But being complicit, through silence, in trashing the reputation of a trustee who himself has done nothing illegal seems to me cowardly and irresponsible.

The Whitney had set the stage for the Kanders slander—the video produced by a London-based research group directed by Eyal Weizman, professor of spatial and visual cultures at Goldsmiths, University of London—with a similarly questionable offering in its last Biennial: It had allowed Occupy Museums to present a huge wall chart demonizing Larry Fink, CEO of the BlackRock asset-management firm, who was identified as a member of MoMA’s board and a member of President Trump’s Strategic and Policy Forum (an advisory group of business leaders). Having allowed sharp criticism of a sister museum’s board member, how could it disallow the same treatment for one of its own?

In their earlier statement alluding to the controversy, posted at the bottom of the Biennial’s homepage (just above the donor credits), the exhibition’s co-curators—Jane Panetta and Rujeko Hockley—had tried to put a good face on an ugly situation:

While we were organizing this exhibition, broader debates in the public sphere surfaced at the Museum, which itself became the site and subject of protest, as it has been throughout its history. Fundamental to the Whitney’s identity is its openness to dialogue, and the conversations that have occurred here and across the country became a productive lens through which to synthesize our own looking, thinking, and self-questioning. 

The good news is that the Whitney has now “received a request from the eight artists who had withdrawn to stay in the show,” the Whitney’s press spokesperson told me. “The deinstallation process had not yet begun. Their works will remain on view. “

Good to hear, because a few of those works had caught my eye during my two Biennial visits. CultureGrrl readers may remember meeting Nicholas Galanin in the video at the bottom of this post about the Peabody Essex’s 2012 “Shapeshifting” exhibition, which I had covered for the Wall Street Journal.

Here’s Galanin again, as photographed by me after we had discussed his piece at the Biennial’s press preview: It’s a woven “prayer rug,” depicting interference in television reception, which is intended to evoke our society’s distorted perceptions of Native Americans:

Nicholas Galanin with his “White Noise, American Prayer Rug,” 2018, Collection of the Artist
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

I was also arrested by Eddie Arroyo‘s visual essay on gentrification, documenting the gradual transformation, from 2016 to 2019, of Cafe Creole in Miami’s Little Haiti. Arroyo was an activist “fighting to change the…trajectory of the neighborhood,” according to the label. The focus on gentrification, running through a number of works in the show, is no small irony, given the new Downtown Whitney’s own transformative effect on the previously scruffy Meatpacking District.

Here are Arroyo’s four views of the building that formerly housed Cafe Creole and bore a mural by Serge Toussaint, a local artist…

Eddie Arroyo, series of paintings of “5825 NE 2nd Ave., Miami, FL 33137”
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

…and here’s a close-up of one of them (the third from the left):

Eddie Arroyo, “5825 NE 2nd Ave., Miami, FL 33137,” 2018, Collection of Dr. Ernesto and Malena Erdmann
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

A big hole in the exhibition would have been left by the departure, now averted, of Nicole Eisenman‘s grotesque “Procession,” which occupies an entire outdoor terrace.

Here’s a ground-level view on a rainy day:

Nicole Eisenman, “Procession,” 2019, Collection of the Artist
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

…and here’s my sunny-day video, shot from above during my second visit, when a band of boys were examining it, worksheets in hand:

Let the healing of schisms in the Whitney’s staff and supporters begin. Adam Weinberg is the most likeable museum director I’ve ever met, and he’s proven to be a great consensus-builder. But his considerable people skills and organizational prowess may not be enough to overcome the thorny management problems that lie ahead.

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