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15 August 2019updated 05 Oct 2023 8:46am

Artists vs arms dealers: Should artists hang their work in unethically funded galleries?

After a wave of artists withdrew from the Whitney Biennial over its links to tear gas, the art world is reassessing the role of artists in challenging where institutions get their wealth. 

By Grace Morgan

Being asked to contribute to one of the most prestigious art shows in the world should be a joyful experience for any artist. But for Iraqi-American artist Michael Rakowitz, participation in this year’s Whitney Biennial soon became a moral minefield. It was revealed in November that the museum’s vice chairman, Warren B Kanders, bought the defence manufacturing company Safariland for $124m in 2012. Its tear gas products are said to have been used against asylum seekers at the US-Mexico border and demonstrators in Puerto Rico.

Rakowitz, whose work often explores the destruction wrought by war, decided to withdraw from the exhibition in November. “I felt like I’d be betraying everything that I’ve ever cared about in the work that I make”, he told the New York Times. “I felt like the only way to truly leverage any kind of voice was to say that often times what an artist doesn’t do is more important than what they said they will do.” After several other artists followed in Rakowitz’s footsteps and withdrew from the Biennial, Kanders announced his resignation at the end of last month.

Led by the group Decolonize This Place, artists and activists have demanded for months that Kanders be removed from his post. According to the New York Times, he has donated more than $10m to the Whitney Museum, and has sat on its board since 2006. The successive artist withdrawals at the end of July seem to have been triggered by a call for action by Hannah Black, Ciaran Finlayson, and Tobi Haslett published in Artforum. Their statement, entitled “The Tear Gas Biennial”, criticised exhibiting artists for their continued participation, urging them to follow Rakowitz’s example. Placing the controversy within a longer tradition of artistic dissent, they called on artists to boycott the exhibition and request their work be removed from show.

“Opportunities to collectively refuse are not unfair burdens but continuations of collective resistance”, they wrote. “The insistence that artists alone—unlike teachers, incarcerated people, and Uber drivers—are unable to act because of their financial and professional circumstances is a career concern masquerading as class analysis.”

Whilst it had the desired effect, pushing several artists to withdraw from the exhibition and ultimately toppling Kanders, the statement reveals a division amongst artists over how best to respond in such scenarios. Urging direct artistic intervention in the form of a boycott raises difficult questions over how much of a responsibility artists have to challenge institutions that exhibit and support their work.

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Whilst 46 out of 75 artists signed an open letter calling for Kanders’ removal, published earlier this year on the website of Verso Books, only nine requested their work be removed from show. For many, the Biennial was supposed to be a momentous step in gaining recognition for their work: curators Jane Panetta and Rujeko Hockley selected a group of diverse, young, and multi-disciplinary artists, only five of whom had previously exhibited at the museum.

Exhibiting artists Laura Ortman, Thirza Cuthand, Brendan Fernandes, Marcus Fischer, Nibia Pastrana Santiago, and Maia Ruth Lee all came forward in the wake of last week’s withdrawals to publicly announce that they would continue to participate in the exhibition, despite their support for the protestors and contempt for the Whitney’s protection of Kanders.

Cuthand, who is due to screen a short film at the end of the Biennial, wrote in a blog post of her difficulty in deciding how to respond to the call for an artist boycott. She described the Artforum statement as “shaming the artists who were still in the Biennial for not pulling out”.

“It really stressed me out because a lot of what was going on seemed to deflect anger at Kanders into anger at the artists,” she wrote. “This whole time I had been worrying that the Kanders controversy was going to destroy my career no matter what decision I made. If I pulled out I’d be like, hard to work with, and lose my big break, and if I stayed in I would have shitty politics.”

Other artists argued that more could be achieved by their participation than their withdrawal. Maia Ruth Lee wrote in an Instagram post that she had spent four hours looking around the exhibition, before making her decision: explaining that she felt “the works were informing me of the times we are in”. Despite believing that the situation called for “direct action”, she believes this can take “various forms”. “The artist’s voice isn’t what needs to be sacrificed in this tragedy, especially the voices of those who are underrepresented and have been given the chance to speak.”

Performance artist Nibia Pastrana Santiago, who has contributed three pieces to the Biennial, was among protestors in Puerto Rico just a few weeks ago when police used tear gas, reportedly produced by Safariland, to dispel the crowds. Even so, she agrees that withdrawal from the Biennial was not the sole form that protest against Kanders could take – instead advocating the­ “tactical use of performance and finding cracks to push, resist, and occupy temporary contexts to make visible how institutions condition and surveil our bodies”.

“My work is not something that can be uninstalled, the work in itself is my body in action,” she says, explaining she has been “marching, dancing, screaming, sweating and protesting, first to demand the resignation of #ricardorosello and secondly to ask for the removal of Kanders from the Museum Board.”

Forensic Architecture, a UK-based investigative research group that employs architectural technologies to analyse sites of violence and human rights abuses, used their place in the exhibition to directly protest against Kanders’ position. Their short film, Triple-Chaser, links Kanders to Sierra Bullets, a US bullet manufacturer that supplies ammunition to the Israeli military. They at first decided to enter the Biennial, despite the protests against Kanders.

Bob Trafford, a researcher from the group and project coordinator for the film, tells me that they were troubled by the way, in the case of figures like Kanders, “support for cultural production is exchanged for a kind of reputation laundering”: an “exchange which burnishes the reputations of wealthy people who profit from harmful and violent structures at the same time enables, normalises, and perpetuates those structures”.

Frustrated by the museum’s “inaction”, Forensic Architecture requested that their film be removed from show in the last week of July. “For more than two months, the museum simply ignored these calls, ignored their artists, ignored their public, and ignored the vibrant and vital activism that occupied the Whitney every week in the run-up to the show”, Trafford says.

The Whitney’s intransigence on Kanders’s position, despite the fervour of the protests, demonstrates the sway that the wealthy continue to hold in the art world. Decolonize This Place wrote in a recent statement that “Kanders is but a symptom of a fundamental structural crisis for the art system”, and that his removal “must be understood as but one step in a broader process of decolonization.”

The furore surrounding the Biennial reflects a broader discourse of accountability and transparency that is gradually gaining momentum in the art world, as many of its institutions find themselves facing scrutiny over their ties to morally dubious funding.

In supplying these institutions with their art, artists risk complicity in legitimising power shored up through the perpetuation of injustice. More than ever before, artists face difficult questions over whether it is their moral obligation to renounce institutions and patrons with links to ethically questionable sources of money.

In 2014, an artist boycott compelled the organisers of the Sydney Biennale to cut ties with their primary sponsor, Transfield Holdings, a company connected to the operation of the Australian government’s immigration detention centers. Gabrielle de Vietri, one of the artists involved in the boycott, tells me that initially she hoped to express her objection through her work – but decided that “the only appropriate response was to withdraw as publicly as I could”.

“[The boycott] forced me to question the impact of what I was doing and injustices that we support or perpetuate by simply making art”, she says. In December, she created a digital map which exposes the links between the fossil fuel industry and the arts in Australia. After feeling like she “could no longer ignore the urgency of the political and environmental situation”, she decided to leave the art world late last year: “After realising that the most important thing I did as an artist was not to make work, but to withdraw my work, I withdrew completely and decided to start a career in law.”

Patronage and art have for so long been symbiotic that when the former is challenged, the latter is often stunted. Following the boycott of the Sydney Biennale, Malcolm Turnbull, then communications minister, denounced the “vicious ingratitude” of the artists involved. De Vietri says that many in the art world blamed the boycott for the federal funding cuts to the arts shortly afterwards.

But there have been many other successful artist interventions. In August last year, an exhibition at London’s Design Museum was left with empty walls after it was revealed that the previous month it had hosted an event for Leonardo, an Italian arms company. Over a third of artists participating in Hope to Nope, which explored the joint history of graphic design and major political change, demanded that their works be removed. Activist theatre group BP or not BP?, who stage “disobedient theatre” in oil-sponsored spaces such as the British Museum, contributed a Shakespearean ruff in the shape of the BP logo. Danny Chivers, a member of the group, describes the Design Museum’s links with Leonardo as “particularly egregious” because of the political nature of much of the art in the exhibition, and that it “quickly became clear that there was a lot of discontent among artists”. A collective called Nope to Arms formed quickly after, issuing a statement at the beginning of August criticising the Design Museum’s inaction in reviewing its funding as promised last year.

Perhaps the most high-profile and successful campaign to re-evaluate the structures of patronage which govern the art world is that led by American photographer Nan Goldin. In March, London’s National Portrait Gallery refused a £1m donation from the Sackler family, after Goldin publicly announced that she would cancel a planned retrospective of her work if the money was accepted. Goldin and her organisation Prescription Addiction Intervention Now (PAIN) have been at the forefront of the campaign to compel art institutions across the world to sever their ties with the Sacklers, who have contributed vast sums to museums in Europe and the US – money the family made through the manufacture of OxyContin, the prescription painkiller that sparked America’s opioid crisis.

But while artists have successfully challenged institutions on several occasions, it is clear that more must be done to effect structural change. Forensic Architecture’s Bob Trafford pointed to the importance of the role of museum staff in the case of the Biennial; as early as December, over 100 members of staff signed a letter calling for the museum to consider asking Kanders to resign. Decolonize This Place also played a vital role in assembling activists, and mobilising members of the public with speeches, music and demonstrations; one protest took the form of burning sage in the museum’s lobby.

Danny Chivers, of BP or not BP?, sees a growing consensus both in the arts sector and amongst the general public that unethical sources of funding are unacceptable in 2019. The public can “look out for growing protests happening in these spaces, sign up for more information from campaign groups”, and “look out for opportunities where members of the public can support these protests”, he says. In 2016, a survey showed that around half of Londoners think the British Museum should drop BP as a sponsor. Actively contacting museums and galleries to voice your opposition is important in spreading such messages – “we know that they do make a difference on the inside, to actually hear from members of the public, because they ultimately rely on public awareness to continue with their legitimacy as institutions”.

Whilst the series of artist withdrawals ultimately forced Kanders’s resignation from the Whitney, protest must take many forms and channels in order to provoke immediate change. As Trafford tells me, “Whenever civil society wants to change structures of power, it has to do so in coalition, and that’s what we’re seeing here”.

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