April 5, 2019; Hyperallergic and the Verso Books blog

We are now going on the fourth of nine weeks of protest in front of the Whitney Museum in New York while its respected Biennial show hangs. Art lovers attracted to this show, which is nationally recognized as a showcase for contemporary artists, are being challenged by protesters organized by Decolonize This Place to consider a wider issue now before many museums and public institutions: “the funding and structural complicity of the museum in state violence against communities of color.”

The spark was lit in December when Hyperallergic reporter Jasmine Weber revealed that Whitney Museum vice chairman Warren B. Kanders owns a company that manufactures tear gas canisters. For 100 staff members, who voiced their concern in a letter to the museum’s leadership, Kanders’ presence as an organizational leader was “demonstrative of the systemic injustice at the forefront of the Whitney’s ongoing struggle to attract and retain a diverse staff and audience…We cannot claim to serve these communities [of color] while accepting funding from individuals whose actions are at odds with that mission [of equity and representation].”

Last week, concerned staff members inside the museum and protestors on the streets outside were joined by over 120 scholars and critics who published a letter of support. For them, the issue is larger than one man’s service on the museum’s board.

Alongside universities, cultural institutions like the Whitney are 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. Yet, these institutions have been historically entwined with the power structures of settler colonialism, white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, and capitalism. They have long functioned as “good places to convert roughly obtained private wealth into social prestige,” as the Washington Post recently put it. These institutions provide cover for the likes of Kanders as they profit from war, state violence, displacement, land theft, mass incarceration, and climate disaster.

For museum leaders, responding to the larger moral issues that these protests are raising has been challenging. In a response to the staff letter, Adam Weinberg, the Whitney’s director, saw the issues beyond his mandate:

The Whitney is first and foremost a museum. It cannot right all the ills of an unjust world, nor is that its role. Yet, I contend that the Whitney has a critical and urgent part to play in making sure that unheard and unwanted voices are recognized. Through our openness and independence, we can foreground often marginalized, unconventional and seemingly unacceptable ideas not presented in other sites in our culture.

The work of the museum, it seems, can be separated from the source of its funding.

For many of the protestors, Kanders and the Whitney have become symbols of a larger problem within the nonprofit community. As NPQ has previously recognized, “Various movements to decolonize museums and repatriate objects are a visual metaphor for dismantling white supremacy as a whole: in order to achieve justice, the privileged party must give something up.”

In their recent letter, the scholars and critics pointed out that “protests are currently proliferating around museums, from the success of PAIN (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) in prompting the Guggenheim and the Tate to cut ties with the Sackler family, to ongoing campaigns targeting El Museo Del BarrioMoMAthe American Museum of Natural History, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Brown University Arts Initiative, where Kanders is also a donor and board member.”

Those charged with the responsibility of ensuring an organization can fulfill its mission, defend its values, and remain viable have a difficult balancing act. Wealth is not earned antiseptically nor magically; it comes with its own provenance. No matter which way the Whitney’s leadership decides to act going forward, it raises some questions that nonprofit leaders should not ignore. In this moment, which has spotlighted the potential reputational costs of a donation, do leaders need a higher standard for what donations they accept and who they accept them from? Do they need a different screen for deciding on who can sit at their board tables? Certainly, bad publicity should not be the only reason to take action.—Martin Levine