Jul 28, 2019

Warren Kanders resigns from Whitney Museum board after border backlash

Protestors calling for Kanders removal from the board.

Photo: Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Image

Warren Kanders resigned from the board of the Whitney Museum this week following months of protests. Kanders owns Safariland, a company that makes the tear gas canisters fired on the U.S.-Mexico border in November.

The big picture: It took quite a long time for Kanders to resign despite his presence on the board casting the Whitney in a negative light for months.

  • Part of the reason for the delay is that although the protests began in December, it was only this month that 8 prominent artists joined in by demanding that their work be withdrawn from the current show at the museum.
  • Another part is that Kanders is stubborn. He believes himself to be on the side of righteousness, saving the lives of law enforcement agents, while his opponents have "a much larger and more insidious agenda."

There's financial logic, too. By occupying a prominent position on the Whitney board, Kanders benefits in 3 main ways.

  1. His position gives him privileged access to the most coveted new art: Galleries are much more likely to sell to the vice chair of the Whitney Museum than to some tear-gas manufacturer.
  2. He can steer the Whitney's acquisition committee toward the artists he likes and collects, thereby giving those artists an institutional imprimatur that will be reflected in his own art's value.
  3. In a city as rich as New York, a seat on the board of a major cultural institution confers a degree of cultural cachet and respectability that money alone can't buy.

Of note: Ken Griffin, the CEO of Citadel, briefly resigned from the Whitney board in solidarity, before changing his mind.

  • If you clicked on the L Brands board page, then the image at the top of the Safariland "About Us" page will educate you even further on the representation of gender in corporate America.

The bottom line: Museums feel a perpetual need to collect collectors, whom they butter up with a combination of flattery and board seats. But now tensions are emerging between labor and capital. The artists who make the museum's art have rarely seemed less aligned with the plutocrats who dominate its board.

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