Do artists have a responsibility to cleanse our cultural institutions of arms dealers?
This summer, eight artists made headlines when they asked for their work to be withdrawn from the Whitney Biennial in a protest against the museum’s economic ties to the weapons industry. The protest was prompted by allegations that the Safariland Group and Clarus Corporation, companies owned by Warren Kanders, Vice-Chair of the Whitney Museum’s board, were complicit in war crimes through the sale of tear gas and bullets. Before the Biennial, the activist group Decolonize This Place staged a nine-week series of protests calling for Kanders’ removal and increased financial transparency, but the threat of withdrawal from the exhibition by the artists proved the tipping point. Kanders resigned from the Whitney’s board on July 25 and the artwork remained in place.
Kanders’ involvement in the sale of weapons was made plain by Triple Chaser, a work of video art created by the group Forensic Architecture. The video is essentially a 15-minute documentary demonstrating a computer program the group built to sift through online images of Triple-Chaser teargas canisters manufactured by Safariland. The program found 28 instances of the teargas being used against civilians.
Triple Chaser is the latest example of Institutional Critique, an artistic movement that began in the 1960s and focused on attacking a perceived ‘cultural confinement’ within gallery spaces. Its leaders began by creating works of art that opposed violence and attacked sources of funding within art institutions. In 1969, the Guerrilla Art Action Group staged an anti-war performance in the lobby of the New York MoMA. The protest called for the Rockefeller family’s removal from the museum’s Board of Trustees “because of their alleged business involvement in the manufacture of weapons destined for Vietnam.” The push to remove museum leaders and donors tied to weapons that occurred at the Whitney and the Design Museum within the past year continues a decades-long project by generations of artists to cleanse the institutions where their work is shown and preserved of ties to violence.
As fights for visibility and representation continue in the art world, the choice to not be in a space seems to be a powerful one. However, withdrawal doesn’t always lead to corrective action on the part of museums. Forty artists withdrew from the Hope to Nope show, which included several works of Institutional Critique, at London’s Design Museum in 2018, after the museum served as a venue for a private event hosted by Leonardo, an arms trading company. They organized in a group called Nope to Arms, staged a protest outside the Design Museum and showed their withdrawn art in a free show at the Brixton Recreation Center.
The museum promised to review their due diligence policy, but Nope to Arms later issued a statement that read: “A year has passed and the museum has apparently done nothing. It has not responded to our requests for an update for many months. There is no publicly available information about its due diligence policy on its website and nothing has been press released on the subject.” The Nope to Arms collective sees the Design Museum’s lack of action as a way of brushing the conflict under the rug, but for most museums, hosting corporate events is a financial necessity. While governments provide some support, many art institutions survive largely on private funding.
Most of the time, artist demands and public opinion are the only checks on whether or not the donations that form a museum’s budget come from suitably ethical businesses and individuals. David Gordon, an adviser who has served as the director of the Royal Academy of Arts in London and the Milwaukee Art Museum acknowledged that, “the world is full of imperfect people who, especially if they’re well-off, have done things that will offend other people. If a museum is attempting to survive in a mixed economy, it’s going to rely extensively on donations from large donors. Some of these large donors — companies or individuals — will do things that are objectionable to some people.” However, a shift in public opinion against “dirty money,” and continued large scale action on the part of artists and activists, could push the art world to distance itself from companies like the Safariland Group and Leonardo with documentable ties to violence.