Following a letter signed by nearly 100 Whitney Museum staff members, Warren B. Kanders, the vice chair of the New York institution’s board, has responded to demands that Whitney leadership take action against him. The staff’s letter came following a Hyperallergic report that highlighted Kanders’s connection to Safariland, a company that manufactures tear gas canisters and other products have been used against asylum seekers along the U.S.-Mexico border. Their letter, published first by Hyperallergic, reads, in part, “To be silent is to be complicit.”
In his letter, which is addressed to the “Whitney Community,” Kanders fired back at signees of the staff’s missive. “While the staff at the Whitney felt the need to speak out, which I fully support, it is unfortunate that they did not first reach out to me. As such, I have taken it upon myself to respond,” Kanders wrote. He explained that Safariland “[provides] safety holsters that prevent criminals from taking firearms from cops and we make the majority of the bomb suits worldwide worn by people who risk their lives to keep us safe.”
Kanders went on:
Safariland’s role as a manufacturer is to ensure the products work, as expected, when needed. Safariland’s role is not to determine when and how they are employed. The staff letter implies that I am responsible for the decision to use these products. I am not. That is not an abdication of responsibility, it is an acknowledgement of reality. We sell products to government institutions, domestically and internationally, all of which must be certified to purchase and use these products. Domestic buyers must be bona fide law enforcement agencies. In the case of international clients, we are required to obtain export licenses from the Department of State for every shipment. In other words, our business is highly regulated to ensure that our products are only sold to government-approved users.
Noting that he “[admired] the bravery” of the 95 Whitney staff members who signed their letter, Kanders added: “I think it is clear that I am not the problem the authors of the letter seek to solve.”
He said that the scrutiny given toward his role in Safariland and his products was potentially harmful:
While my company and the museum have distinct missions, both are important
contributors to our society. This is why I believe that the politicization of every aspect of public life, including commercial organizations and cultural institutions, is not productive or healthy.
In addition to being vice chair, Kanders is listed as being a “significant contributor” to the museum’s current Andy Warhol retrospective.
His letter comes the same day that ARTnews reported on a note sent by Whitney director Adam Weinberg to museum staff. In that note, Weinberg wrote, “Even as we contend with often profound contradictions within our culture, we must live within the laws of society and observe the ‘rules’ of our Museum—mutual respect, fairness, tolerance and freedom of expression and, speaking personally, a commitment to kindness. It is so easy to tear down but so much more difficult to build and sustain.”
Kanders closed with a plea for conversation, writing, “My hope is that providing facts about Safariland, and the vital products it produces for public safety professionals worldwide, can lead to a more informed and constructive dialogue as we move forward together.”