Four Artists Withdraw From Whitney Biennial Over Board Member’s Ties to Tear Gas

Four Artists Withdraw From Whitney Biennial Over Board Member’s Ties to Tear Gas

Four artists have asked the Whitney Museum of American Art to remove their works from this year’s Biennial, citing what they describe as the museum’s lack of response to calls for the resignation of a board member with ties to the sale of military supplies, including tear gas.

Since March, there have been protests at the museum and calls from artists and scholars for the museum to remove the trustee, Warren B. Kanders, who owns a company that distributes law-enforcement equipment, the Safariland Group. Mr. Kanders has vigorously defended the group, but one artist selected for the Biennial declined to participate before the exhibit opened because of Mr. Kanders’s business. Dozens of others called for Mr. Kanders to resign, even as they took part.

In a letter to the Whitney Biennial curators that was first reported on Friday by Artforum, the four artists, Korakrit Arunanondchai, Meriem Bennani, Nicole Eisenman and Nicholas Galanin, said they were angry when they learned of Mr. Kanders’s ties to Safariland, but “were well into fabrication of major pieces” for the Biennial and decided to forge ahead.

“The Museum’s continued failure to respond in any meaningful way to growing pressure from artists and activists has made our participation untenable,” the four wrote in a copy of the letter provided to The New York Times. “The Museum’s inertia has turned the screw, and we refuse further complicity with Kanders and his technologies of violence.”

The letter from the artists came two months before the Biennial was scheduled to close on Sept. 22, and two days after Artforum published an essay by the artist Hannah Black and the writers Ciarán Finlayson and Tobi Haslett entitled “The Tear Gas Biennial,” which called for artists to boycott the exhibition.

In a written statement on Friday, Adam D. Weinberg, the Whitney’s director, acknowledged the artists’ letter to the curators.

“The Whitney respects the opinions of all the artists it exhibits and stands by their right to express themselves freely,” the statement said. “While the Whitney is saddened by this decision, we will of course comply with the artists’ request.”

Mr. Kanders declined to comment through a spokesman.

The museum said it had reached out to artists over their requests to remove works, among them a large-scale sculpture by Nicole Eisenman called “Procession,” which sprawls across the sixth-floor terrace. Also outside on the fifth floor is a “video viewing” station by Meriem Bennani called “Mission Teens,” which follows a group of teenage schoolgirls in Rabat, Morocco.

The Biennial curators chose to include a 10-minute video called “Triple-Chaser” by the London-based activist collective Forensic Architecture with Praxis Films, which is run by the filmmaker Laura Poitras. The piece addresses the controversy over Mr. Kanders, and was named after a type of tear-gas grenade manufactured by Safariland that has allegedly been used against civilians at the United States-Mexico border and elsewhere.

Late last year, the art publication Hyperallergic published photos showing metal canisters marked with the company’s name, which were said to have been found at a site where the American authorities used tear gas to disperse hundreds of migrants who were running toward a crossing from Tijuana to San Diego.

Whitney employees signed a letter expressing dismay at the tear-gas connection. Mr. Kanders replied with a letter of his own expressing pride in Safariland, which also sells protective suits and armor, and adding that the company plays no role in deciding how its products are used.

In a letter last winter to staff members and trustees, Mr. Weinberg wrote that the museum has “a critical and urgent” role in recognizing “unheard and unwanted voices,” but added that it “cannot right all the ills of an unjust world.”

And about two weeks before the Biennial opened in mid-May, roughly two-thirds of the 75 participating artists and collectives added their names to a letter written by academics and critics that urged the museum to remove Mr. Kanders from his position as vice chairman of the board.

On the opening night of the Biennial, protesters draped a black banner reading “When We Breathe We Breathe Together” from an upper floor of the museum. Later they marched to Mr. Kanders’s home in Greenwich Village, taking with them a rolling installation in the form of a five-foot-tall silver cylinder emblazoned with the words “tear gas.”

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