On December 9, 2018, Hyperallergic, an online arts magazine, posted an image of four members of the Fire Department of New York in the lobby of the Whitney Museum. FDNY was on-site after burning sage triggered the building’s fire alarm—undoubtedly sparking fear for the owners of millions of dollars worth of artwork on loan from private collections. On this day, the orchestrated flow of the museum’s first floor space, a threshold we crossed everyday for three months as museum summer interns, was disrupted. The lobby was now filled with smoke and what appeared to be at least forty members from the group Decolonize This Place (DTP) holding signs such as “Whitney Museum: A Space For Profiteers of State Violence.” The entire scene was utterly incongruous with the otherwise sterile feel of the glossy, modern lobby. Confused visitors, expecting to spend their day viewing screen-printed Marilyns and Maos at the Museum’s much anticipated Warhol show, watched the protest from a balcony overlooking the lobby.
In this action, demonstrators demanded the removal of Vice Chair Warren B. Kanders from the Whitney board when the alarm was triggered. A significant donor to the museum, Kanders is also the CEO and owner of the Safariland Group, a company that manufactures “law enforcement products.” The tear gas canisters that Safariland produces are the same ones that law enforcement officers are thought to have fired at unarmed protestors in Ferguson, Standing Rock, Oakland, Egypt, and Palestine. The smoke produced by the sage during DTP’s action was intended to mirror the smoke emitted from the tear gas canisters border patrol officers fired at Mexican asylum seekers. In taking over the institution’s air, the protestors physically and visually forced their political agenda in the museum space. Flyers were passed out during the action, and have continued to be passed out by some visiting artists hosted at the Whitney. The flyer utilized the visual impact of Warhol’s Green Coca-Cola Bottles with Coke bottles replaced with tear gas canisters. In replacing seemingly apolitical pop art Coca-Cola bottles with tear gas, DTP foregrounds that everything is political, including both art and the institutions that display art.
The DTP action occurred after 100 Whitney staff members signed onto a public statement of concern regarding Warren B. Kanders' position on the board. The letter read: “Some of us are deeply connected to the communities that are being directly impacted and targeted by the tear gassing at the border….many of us feel the violence inflicted upon the refugees.” And thus, through this action, DTP called attention to the ways in which American cultural institutions have historically been upheld by state-sanctioned violence against marginalized people. Further, they highlighted how museums continue to be influenced by the interests of wealthy art collectors and patrons. As we both observed in our time working for the Whitney, the museum is a space that was not originally intended for the presence of individuals of any marginalized identity and is still struggling to be inclusive of such identities. However, through their action, DTP calls us to demand more; to hold museums like the Whitney that claim “progressiveness” accountable and perhaps to be more critical of arts funding at other institutions we inhabit.
As a non-profit organization, the Whitney is tax-exempt, along with many universities and charities, and considered by the US government as an institution in support of the public well-being. The Whitney Museum of American Art moved into its Renzo Piano-designed building in 2015 with opening remarks by then First Lady Michelle Obama intended to emphasize the museum’s public-serving role. The move cost the museum $760 million, with $422 million going to the building. In moving from its posh Upper East Side location to the industrial and increasingly gentrified Meatpacking District, the Whitney was able to take advantage of steeply discounted land in a neighborhood that was increasingly experiencing urban change with the opening of the repurposing of old above-ground railway into the High Line, a public park. The building itself is made of smooth, reflective panels and sits right on the Hudson River, perhaps signaling the ways the Whitney has attempted to establish an image of institutional ‘transparency.’ In an attempt to distance itself from American museums’ historical elitism and inaccessibility, the museum’s glass architecture is intended to invite you in. And during our time working at the museum, staff and administrators often described the Whitney as the living artist’s museum—a museum for the American people.
However the art museum, especially within an American context, is still a relatively new institution, and museums’ funding models and internal organizational structures vary dramatically. It was in the 18th and 19th centuries that public, democratized engagement with art was seen as a social value by governments. One of the first “museums,” as we understand them, was the British Museum. Founded by King George II in 1753, the British Museum was heralded as a “national collection open to the public.” The British Museum, and many other early European museums, operated largely as spaces where colonial powers demonstrated their imperial grandess to the public by showing off pilfered pieces of art and archeology which they then went on to exoticize, decontextualize, and misconstrue through curatorial practice. Many US museums founded in the 19th century, such as the Smithsonian, which receives about $1 billion of federal funding annually, reflect the European model of museums that seek to educate the public.
A second wave of American institutions, while supported in part by city and federal governments, truly owe their creation to wealthy patrons. Two prime examples of such an institution are the Museum of Modern Art established in 1929 by Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, wife of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and the Whitney Museum started by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney in 1931. Such institutions mark a shift from reliance on government funding to reliance on funding from tickets, memberships, corporate sponsorships, and private donors. As institutions have increasingly relied upon private funders, who often also collect the work museums exhibit, it has become less clear whether institutions are really for the “public.” The controversy surrounding Kanders reveals the separation between the institution and public interests. Instead of ceding his board position at the demands of the public, Kanders holds onto the social and cultural capital his position grants.
The DTP protest is not the first time the Whitney has been the particular focus of art world protest in its new building. A Dana Schutz painting depicting Emmett Till’s open casket sparked controversy at the 2017 Biennial, and this past summer, ACT UP targeted David Wojnarowicz’s retrospective for its historicization of the ongoing HIV crisis. Both of these protests sparked renewed conversations over the ethics of representation, lack of diverse curatorial staff, and the obligations for museums to negotiate between claiming an apolitical stance through historical framing and their active participation within contemporary politics. Engaging with contemporary artists undoubtedly makes the Whitney more open to controversy than other New York fine arts museums. In internship discussions, it seemed the museum took a primarily reactionary response by leaning on its educational and public relations departments rather than considering how curators and exhibition programming might work to break down the false wall between the apolitical museum space and the “real world” that artists are living and making their work within.
With attention now on Kanders, the Whitney is officially part of a larger group of art institutions targeted for accepting “dirty money.” For example, British group Liberate Tate was founded in 2010 and protested against the Tate Museum in London accepting money from the oil and gas company BP. And after six years of work, Liberate Tate was successful in getting BP to pull its funding from the museum in 2016. Protests have also focused on museum’s labor practices: the Gulf Labor Coalition conducted a number of actions targeted against the Guggenheim's complicity with poor working conditions in the construction of its Abu Dhabi satellite—which also targeted NYU Abu Dhabi's campus. Such protests increasingly target the dilemma of “good for bad” funding— called “art washing” by Liberate Tate. Focused attention on the trusteeship of patrons with political positions differing drastically from the institutions they contribute funding to has caused recent removals of US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin from the Board of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art and actions against MoMA board member and Trump advisor Larry Fink.
As former interns, we were not surprised by Kanders' or Whitney Director Adam Weinberg’s response to these actions given the ways in which museum executives’ interests were disconnected from those of museum staff and artists. In a letter in response to staff members, Adam Weinberg states: “Trustees do not hire staff, select exhibitions, organize programs or make acquisitions, and staff does not appoint or remove board members.” In this statement, Weinberg gets at the ways in which the bureaucracy of a museum operates, the complexities of which we were able to observe this summer.
The Whitney is a mid-sized institution, consisting of slightly under 450 staff members and around 40 departments. Staff rooms and floors are housed on the 3rd and 4th floor right amongst the gallery spaces (not necessarily in another wing of the museum like at other institutions). Often, while riding in the elevator, museum visitors would try to press the 4th floor button—a floor you can only access with a museum ID. A museum of the Whitney’s scale necessitate a large staff, however museum employees often accept salaries that are less competitive than private-sector offerings. Such staff usually finds themselves at the Whitney due to a passion for art and commitment to the museum’s mission.
While Whitney board members may not directly make decisions on exhibitions, to deny that Kander’s position on the board might impact how curators and artists view their position within the museum is to suggest that museums exist in a vaccuum and to perpetuate a lack of institutional accountability. Many curators spoke of their work as being somewhat political, balancing the demands of living artists, ability to acquire works within acquisition committees, and the acquisition of additional funding from private donors and corporations. Additionally, the Whitney Museum—“the artist's museum”—has an especially challenging relationship to the art market as it often exhibits the work of living artists. Such a position means the Whitney often deals with both collectors and artists for its exhibitions. The Museum’s famous Biennial reveals the incredible power an institution like the Whitney has to support the work of living artists. Simultaneously, the position of Biennial curator is arguably one of the most influential positions in the art world and a much sought after position within the competitive world of curating. Such influence is granted via the substantial notoriety and market value Biennial artists receive.
In avoiding accountability over Kanders’ presence on the board, the Whitney continues to perpetuate the museum’s historical model of imperialism, racism, and elitism, and ignores the way these forces impact the way a museum is run. Throughout the internship, we witnessed how staff and administrators would often mention and even joke about how in past years, museum internships were usually intended for undergraduates who are “plugged in”: either those who are enrolled in a university’s elite art history programs, or who had professors or family members who have connections to the institution. In fact, our internship class was only the second ever to be paid. Administrators claimed that in paying interns, the Museum was positioned to be more inclusive of diverse backgrounds and perspectives. However, despite a supposed change in trajectory, throughout the internship I continued to be asked, “How did I manage to get this internship?” As if a Black queer woman could not obtain a position an American museum; as if perhaps this space was not intended for me.
Thus, it is not enough for the Whitney to acknowledge its history and simply claim that it is “moving forward,” as art and art within the museum will continue to be political. Even if works aren’t about subjects of “politics,” Kanders’ dual-positionality as owner of Safariland, as well as an art collector who has stakes in the art market, renders the artwork within the Whitney inherently political. As a result, American museums, such as the Whitney, must fundamentally change the way they are managed. One crucial first step is following the money and realizing that funders and sponsors of the museum are not disconnected from the artwork the institution exhibits. In addition, institutions such as the Whitney should make a pledge to accept significant funding from donors who align with the interests of artists. Board spots should also be ceded to artists within the communities the museum exists. In addition, museum leadership and administration should pledge to acknowledge the demands posed by staff and artists represented by the institution.
With minimal public support, many American museums will continue to rely on the support of wealthy donors, which will continue to bring up questions of whether museums should exist at all. In the meantime, it might prove useful to consider other models of funding; potentially even for-profit social venture models might allow institutions greater freedom from the challenges posed by reliance on small number of influential donors. Additionally, as we’ve seen museums continuing to expand into new buildings in recent, tapering the operating costs could prove more sustainable in allowing institutions to more comfortably hold ethical redlines about certain funders.
The flow of dirty money linking the Whitney to private donors and corporations extends, too, to institutions of higher education. Students at Brown have been increasingly realizing the University's connection to Kanders, who holds a position on the advisory council of the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society and funds “The Warren and Allison Kanders Lecture Series” at the Brown Arts Initiative (BAI). Additionally, he provided underwriting for an exhibition at Brown titled “On Protest, Art, and Activism” between BAI and David Winton Bell Gallery, with works on loan from the Whitney. The Brown Immigrant Rights Coalition recently published a Statement of Solidarity addressing Kander’s connection to the University. Brown University Senior Kat Chavez, who has been working on campus to address Kander’s connection to BAI, said, “The struggle at the Whitney is directly tied to Brown. Warren Kanders has given a significant amount of money to this University—to the Brown Arts Initiative in particular. We are working with DTP to coordinate actions in Providence and New York.”
Brown students now face a situation similar to Whitney staff, in which Brown has not yet publicly revealed concern about Kander’s connection and his continued sponsorship and spot on the advisory council remains unclear. In response to a request for comment, BAI stated, “We at the BAI understand that members of the Brown community have varying perspectives on how organizations committed to the arts should consider the activities of their donors. We also understand that there is no consensus among institutions about addressing such questions when they arise.” In both the Whitney’s response and BAI’s statement, it has become evident that arts institutions do not have solidified redlines for their donors and board member’s affiliations. In fact, it seems that these institutions pose these questions to the public to answer for themselves.
The Whitney was founded by an artist—Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney—and is dedicated to supporting living artists and continues to do incredible work with supporting rising artists with its Biennial, creating unparalleled learning opportunities via its Independent Study Program, and creating a new generation of artists and art appreciators with its phenomenal educational programming. As artists and staff identify the failures of the Whitney to accurately represent and support today’s living artists, the museum should reflect critically on how it might update to serve the more diverse and politically engaged artists of today.
In December, when the DTP action took place at the Whitney Museum, the museum’s lobby became cloudy. Ultimately, however, DTP’s action was clarifying. They were clarifying the role that museums play in an American context, revealing the flows of dirty money and failure to represent the public the institution claims to represent. DTP is pulling back the veil to expose the ways museums continue to act as institutions that serve the wealthy and underserve the marginalized; they are allowing us to see the irony of a show on protest, being directly funded by a man who profits off of the use of extreme forms of violence against protestors and asylum seekers. The use of uninterrogated arts funding within museums and universities is played out. We must demand such institutions clarify and hold positions on whether they will accept dirty money.
BABETTE AND TRISTAN ‘20 want you to email [email protected] with a non-university email to learn more about getting involved about Kanders-related activism on campus at Brown.