Though the artist list for the forthcoming Whitney Biennial was revealed just days ago, on Monday, the exhibition of emerging and established artists has already served as a source of contention. Following up on previous protests at the museum and promises for more to come, the activist group Decolonize This Place announced on Wednesday a plan for “Nine Weeks of Art and Action” in opposition to the Whitney’s affiliation with Warren B. Kanders, the vice chairman of the museum’s board and the chief executive of Safariland, a company that makes tear gas canisters and other products used against asylum seekers on the U.S.-Mexico border.
“It is important to note that Warren Kanders is just the start of the crisis at the Whitney,” Decolonize This Place asserted in a statement posted to its website. “There is no safe space for profiteers of state violence.”
Decolonize This Place posted a manual with notice of planned training sessions for potential protesters and demonstrations to be staged at the Whitney in the nine weeks leading up to the Biennial’s opening in May. (The first protest in the series is currently set for March 22.) While details about the events are unclear, the manual makes mention of tactics including die-ins, banner-making, and readings.
Decolonize This Place’s planned actions at the museum are a continuation of Kanders-related activism begun by the group late last year. In December, the group led a protest in the Whitney’s lobby with burning sage and posters that combined imagery related to the museum’s Andy Warhol retrospective with pictures of Kanders, who is listed as a “significant contributor” to the show. The group later held a town hall meeting at Cooper Union in New York to discuss future actions at the museum.
In November, after a report exposing Kanders’s ties to Safariland was published by Hyperallergic, nearly 100 Whitney staffers signed an open letter that urged the museum to consider asking him to resign from the board. Whitney director Adam Weinberg responded with a statement in which he called on museum employees to start a conversation about Kanders’s role at the museum, and Kanders issued a letter in which he wrote, “I think it is clear that I am not the problem the authors of the letter seek to solve.”
Other forms of protest have taken aim at the Whitney Biennial. In January, the activist collective W.A.G.E. released an open letter urging Biennial participants to demand payment for their participation and to withhold their work. And in December, according to a New York Times report, artist Michael Rakowitz declined to participate in the exhibition in protest of what he called “toxic philanthropy.”