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The Whitney Museum of American Art

Dozens of employees at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York have signed a letter expressing “outrage” over the ties of the vice chairman of the museums board to a company that supplied tear gas used against asylum seekers along the US border with Mexico.

The boards vice chairman, Warren B. Kanders, is the chairman and chief executive of Safariland, a brand name seen on some of the tear gas canisters wielded by United States Customs and Border Protection agents on 25 November as hundreds of migrants rushed toward a border crossing that leads into San Diego.

The letter was submitted to the Whitneys leadership on Friday in response to a 27 November article in the online publication Hyperallergic detailing Kanderss connection to Safariland. It expresses “frustration and confusion at the Whitneys decision to stay silent on this matter”.

“We believe that this recently aired knowledge about Mr. Kanders business is demonstrative of the systemic injustice at the forefront of the Whitneys ongoing struggle to attract and retain a diverse staff and audience,” the letter says. “And because we feel strongly about this, we believe it is our responsibility to speak to this injustice directly, even as the Whitney has chosen not to.”

“To remain silent is to be complicit,” it adds.

The letter demands that the Whitneys leadership convey the staffs concerns to the board; that the board consider asking for Kanderss resignation; that the Whitney issue a public statement in response to the Hyperallergic article; that a staff forum be held to discuss the issue; and that a clear policy be adopted regrading “trustee participation”.

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Asked for comment, the Whitney released a letter today (3 December) sent the previous day by the Whitneys director, Adam Weinberg, to the museums staff and trustees noting that “we truly live in difficult times”.

“The Whitney Museum has always been a space for the playing out of disparate and conflicting ideas,” he writes. “Even as we are idealistic and missionary in our belief in artists—as established by our founder Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney—the Whitney is first and foremost a museum. It cannot right all the ills of an unjust world, nor is that its role.”

“Yet, I contend that the Whitney has a critical and urgent part to play in making sure that unheard and unwanted voices are recognised,” Weinberg adds.

He emphasises that at the Whitney, “we each have our critical and complementary roles: trustees do not hire staff, select exhibitions, organise programs or make acquisitions, and staff does not appoint or remove board members.”

There was no immediate response to an email and phone call to Kanderss office.

An affiliate of Kanderss investment firm acquired Safariland, a manufacturer of equipment for law enforcement and military customers, for $124m in 2012.

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