NEW YORK (AP) — The vice chairman of New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art resigned Thursday, days after eight artists asked to withdraw their work from a biennial exhibition over his ownership of a company that makes tear gas.
“It is with great sadness and disappointment that I inform you of my decision to resign from the Board of Trustees of the Whitney Museum, effective immediately,” Warren Kanders said in letter to the board.
Kanders, who had served on the Whitney’s board since 2006, decried the “politicized and oftentimes toxic environment in which we find ourselves across all spheres of public discourse, including the art community.”
Kanders’ company, the Safariland Group, sells body armor for police officers, as well as tear gas. Critics say the tear gas has been used against migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border and against protesters elsewhere.
Artists and the Whitney’s own staff members had been demanding Kanders’ resignation since November, when more than 100 staff signed a letter calling for him to leave.
The protests intensified after the Whitney Biennial opened in May, culminating in the decision of eight artists to withdraw their work from the exhibition during the past week.
The artists included 2015 MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” winner Nicole Eisenman, whose multi-piece sculpture “Procession” takes up most of the museum’s sixth-floor terrace.
“The Museum’s inertia has turned the screw, and we refuse further complicity with Kanders and his technologies of violence,” Eisenman and three of the other artists said in a July 19 letter to the showcase’s curators published in Artforum.
Hours after Kanders resigned, the artists said they would now remain in the show.
“We reached out to the curators, and the works are going to remain,” said Sitka, Alaska-based Nicholas Galanin, who has two pieces in the show, a tapestry called “White Noise, American Prayer Rug” and “Let Them Enter Dancing and Showing Their Faces — Shaman,” a monoprint.
Galanin said it was “an incredible feeling” to realize that artists “have agency, and art has the power to change.”
Kanders and his wife, Allison Kanders, have led fundraising campaigns for the Whitney and have donated millions of dollars of their own money.
Adam D. Weinberg, the director of the Whitney, said in a statement that the couple “have been unwavering in their commitment to this institution, including a generous lead gift towards the museum’s building project.”
The museum’s president, Richard DeMartini, thanked the couple “for their devotion and service to the Whitney.”
The Whitney moved from the Upper East Side to its current home in a Renzo Piano-designed building at the southern end of the High Line park in 2015.
The museum was founded by art collector and sculptor Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney in 1931.