News, University News

Kanders ’79 resigns from Whitney Museum amid protests, remains on advisory council at University

Safariland, Kanders' company, allegedly sold tear gas used on migrants crossing U.S.-Mexico border

By and
University News Editor and Senior Staff Writer
Friday, July 26, 2019

The Granoff Center for the Creative Arts hosts an annual lecture series supported by Warren Kanders and his wife, Allison.

Warren Kanders ’79, a member of the advisory council for the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society, stepped down as vice chairman of the Whitney Museum of American Art on Thursday over protests about his company’s sale of tear gas.

Activists flocked to the Whitney for months to protest Kanders’ role at the museum, demanding his removal from its leadership. His company, Safariland Group, sells tear gas that law enforcement officials have reportedly used on migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, among other incidents worldwide. 

“The targeted campaign of attacks against me and my company that has been waged these past several months has threatened to undermine the important work of the Whitney,” Kanders wrote in his resignation letter obtained by The New York Times. “I joined this board to help the museum prosper. I do not wish to play a role, however inadvertent, in its demise.”

Kanders could not be reached for comment by press time. 

While protests at the Whitney escalated over the past month — eight artists withdrew from the Whitney Biennial exhibition last week over Kanders’ position at the museum — many University faculty, students and alums have long called for the University to cut all ties with Kanders. In addition to his position on IBES, an institute that explores the relationship between the natural world and sustainability in human society, he and his wife, Allison Kanders, have supported a Brown Arts Initiative lecture series since 2017. Allison Kanders also resigned from her position as co-chairwoman of the museum’s painting and sculpture committee on Thursday.

“The call for the removal of Kanders cannot stop at the Whitney,” wrote Professor of Comparative Literature and Modern Culture and Media Ariella Azoulay in an email to The Herald. “We as a community should expect the University to stand behind its explicit promise in its report on Slavery and Justice to ‘uphold a strict procedure for the ethical review of gifts,’ and to avoid profiting from money earned through the destruction of life.”

Azoulay, Associate Professor of History Vazira Fazila-Yacoobali Zamindar and Postdoctoral Research Associate in History of Art and Architecture Lindsay Caplan signed an open letter released April 5 calling for Kanders’ removal from the Whitney board. Over 100 other artists and intellectuals also signed on in support.

On College Hill, students have mobilized against Kanders’ involvement with the University for over a year. In the spring, student collective “Warren Kanders Must Go” dropped stacks of flyers in the Granoff Center for the Creative Arts with information on Kanders’ ties to the University. The group also led a “teach-in” about Kanders and Safariland alongside the Brown Immigrant Rights Coalition and student coalition Brown Divest. Brown Divest lists Safariland among the nine companies it has identified as allegedly complicit in human rights abuses against Palestinians.

Anchita Dasgupta ’21, who said she was involved in Brown Divest last spring, hopes Kanders’ resignation from the Whitney will inspire similar change at the University.

“I hope that this is a first step to getting the Brown administration to agree to the ‘Warren Kanders Must Go’ campaign’s demands that he and his wife should not be involved with the arts initiative and IBES,” Dasgupta said.

Kanders defended his company in a letter to the editor in February 2018, where he responded to an op-ed that condemned the University for its relationship with Kanders. Kanders wrote that Safariland, which manufactures supplies for law enforcement and military use, has helped save lives with products like bulletproof vests and should not be held responsible for every use of its equipment. 

“Our less lethal products are designed to give law enforcement crowd control options in dangerous situations, for which we work closely with first responders and provide extensive training,” Kanders wrote. “As with any product, ultimate responsibility for its use falls on the individuals involved in their use.”

Director of News and Editorial Development Brian Clark declined to comment on Kanders’ resignation from the Whitney and his position at the University, referring to the news as “not specific to Brown.”