This past season, New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art presented a year-long exhibition that ended in August 2018, An Incomplete History of Protest: Selections from the Whitney’s Collection, 1940–2017. This past weekend, the Whitney got to experience protest first-hand, reports artnet News.
An organization called “Decolonize This Place” and other activist groups brought banners, chants, and sage to the museum. The protest prompted the fire department’s presence because the museum’s lobby was filled with smoke from demonstrators burning sage, a symbolic action meant to mirror the toxic tear gas used on November 25 against asylum seeks attempting to enter the US from Mexico. The protesters stayed and chanted “Fire! Fire! Fire to the colonizers!” but, after a while, they relocated, and the action continued peacefully back outside.
The demonstration is about the presence of Warren B. Kanders, the owner of the company Safariland, on the museum’s board. According to a late November article by Hyperallergic, Safariland manufactured the tear gas used by United States Customs and Border Protection officers on migrant mothers and children at the San Diego-Tijuana border. Kanders has served as Safariland’s board chairman since 1996 and owner since 2012.
Another Hyperallergic article states that “The protesters noted that they were acting separately, but in solidarity with, the staff of the Whitney Museum. Around a week and a half ago, nearly 100 museum employees wrote a letter calling for Kanders to be removed from the board and for the museum to release a statement acknowledging the issue.” Museum Director Adam Weinberg did indeed respond. He wrote in a statement: “Even as we are idealistic and missionary in our belief in artists — as established by our founder Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney — the Whitney is first and foremost a museum. It cannot right all the ills of an unjust world, nor is that its role.” Weinberg also called the museum “a safe space for unsafe ideas.” Some protesters found the statement, “a slap on the face of their workers and the public at large.”
Keep a look for further activity at the Whitney. “We do not do one-offs,” Decolonize This Place told artnet News in a Facebook message. “But we are also waiting to hear how the Whitney will respond after our action, and whether they will remove Warren B. Kanders.”