Dozens of artists connected to the Whitney Museum of American Art — including more than half of those selected for the coming Biennial — have called for the resignation of a museum board member whose company sells tear gas that activists and the art publication Hyperallergic say was used on migrants at the Mexican border.
It was the latest volley in a monthslong series of letters involving the board member, Warren B. Kanders, museum employees, artists and academics over his role as owner, chairman and chief executive of the Safariland Group, which sells multiple lines of military and law enforcement equipment including tear gas. According to Hyperallergic, photos showed tear gas canisters marked with the company’s name at a site where the American authorities used tear gas to disperse hundreds of migrants running toward a crossing that leads from Tijuana to San Diego last fall.
On Monday, artists, including Dread Scott, Barbara Kruger, Cameron Rowland, Nan Goldin, Yvonne Rainer, Hans Haacke, Andrea Fraser and Laura Poitras, whose work is owned or has been exhibited by the Whitney, added their names to a letter published this month by scholars and critics who urged the museum to remove Mr. Kanders from his position as a vice chairman of the board.
Forty-six of the 75 artists and collectives chosen for the Biennial, which opens May 17, also signed the letter, which said tear gas from Mr. Kander’s company had been used against Palestinians in the Middle East and protesters in Egypt, Puerto Rico and Standing Rock, N.D., and called for a conversation about private funding of cultural institutions.
“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,” the letter said. “These institutions provide cover for the likes of Kanders as they profit from war, state violence, displacement, land theft, mass incarceration and climate disaster.”
Mr. Kanders and the Whitney both declined to comment.
Last year, Mr. Kanders replied to a letter by museum employees dismayed by the tear gas connection with his own letter to the Whitney board, in which he expressed pride in Safariland, which also sells body armor and protective suits, and said that the company plays no role in deciding how its products are used.
“Regardless of one’s political persuasion, I hope we can all agree that uncontrolled riots pose a serious threat,” he wrote, adding: “I think it is clear that I am not the problem the authors of the letter seek to solve.”
The Whitney’s director, Adam Weinberg, wrote last year in a letter addressed to staff members and trustees that the museum has “a critical and urgent” role in recognizing “unheard and unwanted voices,” but added that the trustees do not hire staff, select exhibitions, organize programs or make acquisitions, and that staff members do not appoint or remove board members.
“The Whitney is first and foremost a museum,” Mr. Weinberg wrote. “It cannot right all the ills of an unjust world, nor is that its role.”
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