As calls intensify for Whitney Museum vice chair Warren B. Kanders to step down, what more can museums do to avoid appointing board members with unethical business ties?
Less than a week ago, more than 120 artists, academics and critics signed and published an 800-word open letter, entitled ‘Kanders Must Go’, which called for the resignation of Warren B. Kanders, vice chairman of New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art. Kanders, crucially, is also the majority owner and CEO of Safariland, a company that manufactures ‘defence products’, like the tear gas used by American immigration authorities at the US–Mexico border. But the demand for Kanders to step down has been boiling for a few months now – at least since late November, when Hyperallergic published a story revealing his business interests. Kanders has not responded to this most recent letter but, in January, when he faced mounting pressure from protest groups and received a letter in November signed by a number of staff members at the Whitney, he reacted by denying responsibility for how his company’s products are used. ‘Safariland’s role as a manufacturer is to ensure the products work, as expected, when needed,’ he responded. ‘Safariland’s role is not to determine when and how they are employed.’
Kanders’s response – and this general stance that business and oppression are unrelated – is similar to that of the Dow Chemical Company when it was protested for making the napalm used by the US military during the Vietnam War. In August 1966, Dow’s corporate headquarters wrote a letter to its employees, in which it defended its production of napalm as a civic duty: ‘Dow accepts this contract because we feel that simple good citizenship requires that we supply our government and our military with goods they need when we have the technology and the capability and have been chosen by the government as a supplier.’
It’s a common defence: ‘We’re just doing our part; we can’t be held responsible for how our products are used.’ Gun manufacturers use it, opioid producers, alcohol companies. Sometimes, it’s a difficult line to parse: alcohol shouldn’t be banned just because alcoholics exist; tear gas can, arguably, be a legitimate mode of defence occasionally. But where is the line between using it for brutality versus using it for defence, and who are we entrusting to make that decision?
It is, perhaps, a little unfair that Kanders has taken the brunt of this protest. There are, surely, hundreds of museum board members with unethical business ties throughout the country. Ultimately, however, as the signatories of the most recent letter have tried to make clear, it’s necessary to focus on an individual in order to begin to solve a collective, systemic issue.
‘The idea – as with the Sacklers – is to pick a particular instance that is egregious and to draw attention there,’ Hal Foster, the art historian and a signatory of the open letter, told me. ‘Of course, the problem is systemic, but artists and activists cannot work at that systemic level; they need to develop actions that target particular people and particular institutions.’
It goes unsaid in the letter, but it is also more realistic to cleanly unseat someone like Kanders from the Whitney, whose net worth is estimated at around US$57 million, than it would be to oust, say, oil billionaire David Koch as a trustee at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, given that he has an estimated net worth of around US$50 billion and has his name emblazoned on the plaza. The symbolic gesture is nonetheless vital: to remove one bad apple is to begin to dislodge them all. (Indeed, David Koch resigned from the board of the Natural History Museum in New York in 2016 after protests from scientists, although the museum still retains a wing in his name.) The Whitney, in particular, presents itself as a progressive institution, or as the latest protest letter puts it, ‘among the few spaces in public life today that claim to be devoted to ideals of education, creativity, and dissent beyond the dictates of the market,’ so it should not be providing, as the letter also says, ‘cover for the likes of Kanders as they profit from war, state violence, displacement, land theft, mass incarceration and climate disaster’.
What, though, can we really expect from the board members of major museums? To be on such a board requires an enormous financial commitment and it is hard to think of a great fortune amassed without at least some harm done to people, animals or the environment. In reality, it’s probably necessary to entirely revise the museum-board membership model. For a start, there should be some process of vetting potential candidates – of differentiating between ‘dirty’ money and, if there is such a thing, ‘clean’ money. Reputation-polishing via cultural patronage is hardly new but – as artist, activist and letter signatory Gregory Sholette told me – ‘principled cultural conduct’ is particularly vital at present given that we live in ‘a time of spreading political authoritarianism, racial supremacy and anti-immigrant policies’. Nowadays, of course, thanks to social media and an increasingly radicalized political playing field, it is, thankfully, easier than ever before to hold people publicly accountable for their inappropriate actions – be they sexual (as with the #MeToo movement) or financial.
Last year, the performance artist Andrea Fraser published a 950-page document, titled 2016 in Museums, Money, and Politics, which outlined the intersection between cultural patronage and campaign finance in order to, as she wrote, question whether ‘private, non-profit arts organizations funded and governed by wealthy patrons serve to legitimize government by and for the wealthiest members of society’. Surveying 2,411 board members from 128 major art museums across the US, Fraser found that, between the 2016 and 2018 election cycles, they had given a total of US$212.4 million to political campaigns. At the Whitney Museum, 73 percent of board members had made such donations.
While it may sound unduly cynical, significant gifts of this calibre are seldom made out of innocent passion for a candidate or a cause. Rather, wealth, philanthropy and oppression present themselves as a unit – a complex tangle in which charity comes with the strings of power still attached. The notion that a society can function justly based on the philanthropy of the very rich is inherently flawed. Donors always receive something in return, even when that something is intangible – like a burnished reputation or the implicit agreement by an institution and its patrons to look away from a donor’s questionable business interests.
Main image: Protest at the Whitney Museum, 2018. Courtesy: Getty Images; photograph: Erik McGregor