At Whitney Museum Biennial, 8 Artists Withdraw In Protest Of Link To Tear Gas Sales

Jul 22, 2019
Originally published on July 22, 2019 1:09 pm

More artists are telling the Whitney Museum of American Art they are withdrawing from the museum's high-profile Biennial contemporary art showcase currently underway in New York.

"It was a really easy decision," says artist Nicholas Galanin, who spoke by phone from Alaska, where he lives. Along with three other artists, he told the Whitney on Friday that he wanted his multimedia work pulled from the show.

Over the weekend, Galanin and the others were joined by four more artists and collectives. Many in the art world expect other artists in the show to follow suit during the coming week.

The artists are protesting the vice chair of the Whitney's board, Warren B. Kanders, over his ownership of military supply companies that sell tear gas and bullets, which the artists allege to have been used against migrants on the U.S. southern border and against unarmed civilian protesters in Gaza.

One of the pieces in the Biennial show, a short video titled "Triple-Chaser," lays out a case against Kanders, with the help of gruesome footage of a Palestinian protester getting shot. It was made by a London collective called Forensic Architecture, along with Praxis Films, a company run by filmmaker Laura Poitras.

Forensic Architecture is among the artists requesting that their work be removed from the Whitney Biennial.

"We might just end up with a Biennial of empty rooms," says Zachary Small, senior writer for the art news website Hyperallergic. "That would be an amazing statement about who is funding culture."

Art critic Blake Gopnik, a contributor to The New York Times, agrees.

"The artists who withdrew from the Biennial actually made the best work of art in the Biennial. This is an excellent work of political art," he said, referring to the artists' defection.

Other critics have pointed out that these artists have benefited from the exposure and notoriety, and that it seems awfully convenient that they waited to withdraw their art until after the reviews were in. Thousands of people have seen their work, and the show will close relatively soon, on Sept. 22.

"But look, we're talking about these issues," Gopnik says. "It's raising our awareness of the contradictions involved and the subtleties and ambiguities — and that's what art is good at doing."

(For his part, Nicholas Galanin says he was aware of Kanders' role with the museum when he accepted the Whitney's invitation. But as a Native American, he says, he felt it was important to represent a group of people who aren't often recognized on the walls of contemporary art museums. He says he was hopeful the museum would oust Kanders if enough artists pushed back against him.)

Two visitors who went to the Whitney Biennial on Sunday, Rachel Weber and her friend Coral Bourgeois, said that usually when they go to museums, it's for inspiration — not to reflect upon how the money behind them may have come from the tools of war.

"This really brought it home," Weber said, as Bourgeois chimed in her agreement. "That this is what the Whitney is."

The Whitney's president, Adam D. Weinberg, said in a statement that "the Whitney respects the opinions of all the artists it exhibits and stands by their right to express themselves freely. While the Whitney is saddened by this decision, we will of course comply with the artists' request."

As of Sunday, none of the art had been taken down, and it's unclear what will happen with the artists' fees.

Nicholas Galanin says he was paid $1,500 for his pieces in the show. But he said that did not cover the costs of traveling to the opening from Alaska, where he lives, and then putting himself up in New York.

Those costs, he said, the Whitney did not pay for. But Galanin said he'll happily return his fee to the Whitney if the museum wants it in return for taking his work down.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Not for the first time, a showcase of modern art has become a showcase of politics. Eight artists are protesting the Whitney Biennial over a very wealthy donor to the Whitney Museum of American Art. NPR's Neda Ulaby reports.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: First let's meet one of the artists.

NICHOLAS GALANIN: My name is Nicholas Galanin. I'm a multidisciplinary artist.

ULABY: Galanin has two pieces in the show. One's a prayer rug woven to look like static on television. He's also one of the defectors. Last week, Galanin and other artists informed the Whitney they want out from the Biennial show, which opened in May. They were protesting how the vice chair of the museum's board got his money. Warren B. Kanders owns military supply companies that sell tear gas and bullets. The artists believe they've been used against migrants on the U.S. southern border and unarmed civilian protesters in Gaza.

GALANIN: Yeah. It was a really easy decision.

ULABY: Galanin says he knew about Kanders when he first agreed to be in the show, but...

GALANIN: As a Native American or indigenous artist, I think it's really important that we show up in some of these spaces.

ULABY: And also, apparently, to disavow them. Galanin has been joined by a number of other artists who want their work removed from the show. Zachary Small writes for the arts news website Hyperallergic.

ZACHARY SMALL: We might just end up with a Biennial of empty rooms.

ULABY: Which would be a statement about who is funding culture, he says. That collective action might just be its own kind of art, says critic Blake Gopnik.

BLAKE GOPNIK: The artists who withdrew from the Biennial actually made the best work of art in the Biennial. This is an excellent work of political art.

ULABY: Other critics have pointed out these artists have benefited from the exposure and notoriety of yanking their work, and that they waited to do so until the show was almost over. The Biennial closes in September.

GOPNIK: But look, we're talking about these issues. It's raising our awareness of the contradictions involved and the subtleties and ambiguities, and that's what art is good at doing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ART MUSEUM AMBIENCE)

ULABY: That's what it did with a couple of friends who visited the Whitney Biennial yesterday. Rachel Weber (ph) and Coral Bourgeois (ph) said you usually go to an art museum to be uplifted and inspired, not to think about how it may have been funded by tools of war.

RACHEL WEBER: This really...

CORAL BOURGEOIS: This is...

WEBER: ...Brought this...

BOURGEOIS: Yeah. Brought it home.

WEBER: Brought it home that this is what the Whitney is.

ULABY: In a statement, the Whitney's president said the museum is saddened by the artists' decision but supports their right to express themselves. None of the art has been taken down so far, and it's unclear what will happen with the artists' fees. Artist Nicholas Galanin told me he was paid $1,500 for his pieces in the show, but he said that did not even cover the costs of traveling from Alaska, where he lives, and putting himself up in New York for the opening. He says the Whitney did not cover those costs. He said he'll happily return his fee to the Whitney if the museum wants it in return for taking his work down. Neda Ulaby, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.