‘What Is Considered Evil?’: How US Museum Leaders Are Grappling With the Fallout of Warren Kanders’s

Political activists gather outside of the Whitney Museum to demand that the museum's board dismiss Warren Kanders

Political activists gather outside of the Whitney Museum to demand that the museum's board dismiss Warren Kanders. Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images.

Activists and artists have been pushing out what they consider “toxic” museum philanthropists at an unprecedented pace in recent months. In a spectacular development, in late July, Warren Kanders, whose company Safariland manufactures tear gas, resigned from his position as vice chair of the Whitney Museum’s board after eight artists threatened to withdraw their work from the current biennial in protest of his presence.

Meanwhile, museums around the world have started rejecting funding from the Sackler family, which manufactured and aggressively marketed the addictive painkiller OxyContin.

Now many activists and philanthropists alike are wondering, what’s next?

There is no shortage of potential targets: The anti-climate-science David Koch is a trustee emeritus of the Metropolitan Museum (with his name on the fountain out front), while David M. Rubenstein, whose weath is linked to the fighter jets used in the slaughter of Yemeni civilians, donated $10 millionto the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and sits on the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents. New York magazine went so far as to put out a list last week of the “Most Toxic Museum Boards.”

Meanwhile, museum leaders are caught in the middle. The balancing act between serving their communities and securing future funding seems increasingly precarious, and everyone is looking for a formula to mediate the escalating tensions between the two sides.

A Delicate Balance

“Museums depend heavily on philanthropy. How do they start dissecting what’s okay and what’s not in terms of their policies?” says Komal Shah, a trustee of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Tate Americas who worked for many years in the tech industry. “There’s no black and white. Since I come from the tech world, I’m wondering if at some point Google or Facebook was deemed evil, do museums stop taking their money? And what is considered evil? How do you really define?”




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