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

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Seven 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. Four of the artists withdrew on Friday; three more followed on Saturday morning. There are 75 artists and collectives in the Whitney Biennial, which is due to close on Sept. 22.

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.”

On Saturday morning, three additional artists indicated they were withdrawing work in solidarity. Eddie Arroyo and Agustina Woodgate announced through their gallery, Spinello Projects, of Miami, Fla., that “the request is intended as condemnation of Warren Kanders’ continued presence as Vice Chair of the Board and the Museum’s continued failure to respond in any meaningful way to growing pressure from artists and activists.”

A seventh artist, Christine Sun Kim, said in an email to The New York Times on Saturday that she, too, had asked for her work to be withdrawn from the Biennial.

“As a mother to a 2-year-old daughter, it terrifies me that my work is currently part of a platform that is now strongly associated with Kanders’ teargas-producing company Safariland,” she wrote to curators. “I do not want her to grow up in a world where free and peaceful expression is countered with means that have left people injured and dead.”

The Biennial, which began as an annual show in 1932 and adopted its current schedule in 1973, has often included politically tinged works. This year’s exhibition addressed, among other topics, N.F.L. players taking a pregame knee to protest police violence against African-American men and women; and the 1989 Central Park jogger case, in which a group of black and Latino teenagers were wrongly accused and convicted of assaulting and raping a white woman.

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The last time work was publicly withdrawn from a Biennial was 2014, when the YAMS, a collective of artists, removed their video on race and black identity, contending another project in the show was racially insensitive. In 2017, Dana Schutz’s painting “Open Casket” drew sustained protests for its abstracted portrayal of the corpse of the black teenager Emmett Till, whose lynching in 1955 helped spur the civil rights movement. The work, however, remained on view.

Friday’s letter from the four artists withdrawing their work came on the heels of an essay, “The Tear Gas Biennial,” in Artforum which called on artists to boycott the exhibition.

In a written statement on Friday, Adam D. Weinberg, the Whitney’s director, acknowledged the four 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 that directly addressed the controversy over Mr. Kanders, called “Triple-Chaser,” by the London-based activist collective Forensic Architecture with Praxis Films, which is run by the filmmaker Laura Poitras. The title comes from a type of tear-gas grenade manufactured by Safariland that has allegedly been used against civilians at the United States-Mexico border and elsewhere during protests.

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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