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Whitney Staff Call for Vice Chair’s Resignation Over Links to Tear Gas Used on Mexican Border

‘To remain silent is to be complicit’: more than 100 staff have demanded the museum clarify its policy on trustee participation

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Tear gas canisters used at the US-Mexico border. Courtesy: Patrick Timmons

Tear gas canisters used at the US-Mexico border, 28 November 2018. Courtesy: Patrick Timmons

The Whitney Museum of American Art is facing intense criticism from the public as well as its own staff after it was revealed that Warren B. Kanders, a vice chairman on the museum’s board, owns two companies that produce teargas used on the US-Mexico border. The use of tear gas on migrants attempting to cross the border between Tijuana and San Diego sparked widespread criticism after images emerged of men, women and children choking on the chemical weapon.

Taking place a few weeks ago, reporters at the scene posted images of the used tear gas canisters on social media, which are clearly branded ‘Safariland’ and ‘Defense Technology’ – two companies owned by Kanders. The Whitney vice chairman has been affiliated with the Safariland since 1996 and purchased the corporation in 2012 from BAE Systems for around USD$124 million (GBP£97 million).

Safariland also supplied weapons used by police forces in Ferguson, Oakland and Baltimore: three cities plagued by scandals relating to police brutality.

In response to the stories, broken by Hyperallergic, Whitney staff members have written an open letter to museum leaders calling on them to issue a statement; to open a staff-wide forum for discussion; to develop and distribute a clear policy around Trustee participation; and to consider asking for Kanders’ resignation.

‘We read the Hyperallergic article and felt not annoyed, not intellectually upset – we felt sick to our stomachs, we shed tears, we felt unsafe,’ the letter reads.

The letter also argues that the museums’ inclusivity policy sits at odds with Kander’s position: ‘Upon learning of Kanders’s business dealings, many of us working on these initiatives feel uncomfortable in our positions. We cannot claim to serve these communities while accepting funding from individuals whose actions are at odds with that mission’

At the time of publication, the letter had been signed by more than 100 staff members, including curators at the museum, as well as the majority of educational staff.

So far the Whitney has not responded to a request for comment from frieze.com.

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