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Benefactors and Malefactors

Why the Whitney Museum embraces a tear-gas tycoon; and other compromises of high culture

There was no reason to be shocked by the November reports that Warren B. Kanders, whose company provides tear gas for United States border agents to use on migrant families, is also a prominent New York philanthropist. The fact that Kanders was deeply invested in “defense technologies” while also serving as a vice chairman of the board of trustees of the Whitney Museum of Art was noted by at least two outlets back in 2015.

Yet people in the New York art world only registered what “defense technologies” really means when spent tear gas canisters bearing the brand logo “Safariland”—the company Kanders has run since 2012—turned up at the U.S.-Mexico border at Tijuana. The news created a stir. About a hundred staffers at the Whitney signed a letter intended “to convey our outrage” that Kanders’s company “is the supplier of the tear gas recently used to attack asylum seekers at the US border, and our frustration and confusion at the Whitney’s decision to remain silent on this matter.” 

The response? “We feel it is unfortunate that Warren Kanders was singled out,” four Whitney board members wrote in an internal email on December 3, as reported by Forbes. Inadvertently, they made a good point: at least eight others on the Whitney board likewise profit from war. Ten profit from oil, gas, fracking, and off-shore drilling. There are billionaires and children of billionaires, bankers, real estate magnates, and investors in mortgage-backed securities—remember those? The millions of people who lost their homes after 2008 do.

Of the Whitney’s fifty-eight board members, there is one famous academic (Henry Louis Gates Jr.) and just one professional artist (Fred Wilson).

Pull back the curtain at any museum and you’ll find a similar roster of ethically compromised business barons. Think of the Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C., and the Sackler Museum at Harvard, and the Sackler Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art—all named for the Sackler brothers, who made their fortune from Purdue Pharma, the producer of OxyContin. The Whitney’s appointment of Kanders is just another example that “socially responsible” is not a term that carries any weight in the world of high culture. And Kanders fits right in with the rest of the Whitney board.

Galleries around the world are named for the Sackler brothers, who made their fortune from Purdue Pharma, the producer of OxyContin.

Take, for example, his colleague Nancy Carrington Crown, wife of A. Steven Crown, general partner of the Henry Crown and Company private investment dynasty. That firm’s investment arm, Longview Asset Management, owns the majority stake in General Dynamics, producer of missiles and bombs “designed for effect, built for lethality,” according to the firm’s brochures. “Our family of warheads offers the warfighter the lethal effects needed for battlefield superiority.”

That gobbledygook translates to bombs designed to kill as many people as possible for clients like the Israeli government, which uses them against Palestinians. The firm also conducts surveillance at the U.S. border with Mexico, and is managing cases of immigrant children who U.S. Border Patrol agents rip from their families.

Or take Fern Kaye Tessler. She’s the wife of Lenard B. Tessler, vice chairman of Cerberus Capital Management, a private equity firm that recently invested in the Sparton Corporation, which makes anti-submarine warfare devices for the U.S. Navy, and in Navistar Defense, which last year won a $475 million contract for armored vehicles for Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates.

Or how about James A. Gordon? He’s the founder of The Edgewater Funds, a private equity firm whose investments include Unitech Aerospace, which makes military airplanes lighter so they can carry more bombs, or as the company puts it, increases “payload capacity.” Here are a few other distinguished Whitney trustees:

  • Kenneth C. Griffin, founder of hedge fund Citadel, which recently increased its stake in Astronics, a company that makes sure the military’s airplanes, vehicles, and weapons systems are up to snuff.
  • Paul S. Levy, founder of private equity firm JLL Partners, which invests in defense contractors Aviation Technical Services, which does for the military what the name suggests, and Point Blank Enterprises, Inc., which makes body armor and bunkers and covert “surveillance for truth” systems you operate out of a car.
  • Pamella G. DeVos, sister-in-law of Trump-appointed secretary of education Betsy DeVos. The DeVos family wealth derives from Amway, but they have ties to military ventures, as well: Betsy DeVos is the sister of Erik Prince, founder of private security firm Blackwater, whose mercenaries massacred fourteen unarmed Iraqis in 2007 when they fired machine guns and launched grenades into Baghdad’s Nisour Square.
  • Julie Ostrover, wife of Douglas Irving Ostrover, founder of the private equity firm Owl Rock, which invests in AC&A Enterprises Holdings, maker of military equipment, and Perspecta, provider of tech support to the U.S. armed forces.
  • Thomas E. Tuft. He’s a chairman at Lazard, an international financial firm that invests in Arotech Corporation, BWX Technologies, Boeing, CPI AeroStructures, AeroVironment, and Aerojet Rocketdyne—makers of military equipment, missiles, drones, and nuclear reactor parts.

These trustees might call themselves “defense investors.” Another term is “war profiteers.” They compose just one demographic on the Whitney’s board. I could list the ones made rich from oil, like Susan K. Hess, the wife of John B. Hess, CEO of the Hess Corporation, which is involved in fracking in North Dakota and Ohio. I could list the trustees made rich by New York’s rotten real estate industry, like Anne-Cecilie Engell Speyer, wife of Tishman Speyer CEO Rob Speyer, who in 2006 bought New York’s 110-building Stuyvesant Town–Peter Cooper Village for $5.4 billion, tried to get people to leave so he could jack up the rent, then in 2010 defaulted on a three-billion-dollar mortgage on the project.

These are the ultra-wealthy and ultra-connected people who make it onto museum boards because they are the biggest donors. Uptown at the Met, you’ll see Henry Kissinger and David Koch listed as trustees emeriti. On the Guggenheim Museum’s board, you’ll find vice president Linda Macklowe, estranged wife of real estate tycoon Harry Macklowe, who once demolished housing in Times Square for people on welfare, in the dead of night and without a permit, then in its place raised a luxury hotel he named after himself.

The trustees might call themselves “defense investors.” Another term is “war profiteers.”

None of this information is secret. But neither museums nor their trustees spell it out, so it’s hidden just enough that our collective delusions about museums can persist. The cover is only blown in extreme cases—tear-gassed kids—and it throws into the ugliest light one of the few public places of respite from our punishing society. It’s a particularly stark reminder that no organization is purely good when money is the major organizing principle. The art and search for meaning that constitute the best expression of humanity will always be diluted here. In this case it’s cut by the worst expression of humanity, war.

It’s also a stark reminder that people with blood on their hands will always have a chance to rehabilitate their image. In this case, museums use them to keep their lights on: by appointing big donors to the board, sometimes requiring they donate a minimum amount, and then assigning them such duties as fundraising, “educating policymakers,” and “thinking strategically,” according to the American Alliance of Museums’ most recent report on museum boards. And in exchange for this, donors can represent to the rest of us that they are our benefactors, regardless of what else they’re up to. Now they’re “philanthropists.”

But maybe that’s just a happy accident, a byproduct of capitalism.

“When it comes right down to it, money is money. You need it to operate, and I don’t buy the notion that these bad companies are cleansing their reputation by supporting museums,” said Sally Yerkovich, author of A Practical Guide to Museum Ethics. “That’s part of the myth too. Museums are not-for-profit businesses, but they are businesses. They are nonprofit corporations and they need to be run responsibly and they need money. I don’t know where the squeaky clean image comes from.” 

In other words, if the Whitney wasn’t getting its money from its current donors, it would have to get it from others. And if you believe there are no good billionaires, then they’d only be trading these devils for new ones.

While there are some groups demanding museums rid their portfolios of certain investments, especially oil, that same pressure doesn’t extend to the trustees. The American Alliance of Museums did not answer my questions, including whether museums divesting in oil would also ask a board member connected to that industry to step down. One anecdote, though, shows a disconnect: The American Museum of Natural History said it was getting out of oil investments, but it’s kept around global warming denier (and patron of the Bannonite right) Rebekah Mercer. (Sidenote: they also didn’t really divest.)

“I think the public has a right to protest and demand change but I don’t think it’s likely museums are going to shed all their trustees who have non-liberal business dealings, because then who would be donating? Museums are really expensive,” said Erin Thompson, associate professor of art crime at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Perhaps that will shift someday on a large scale. Staff at the Whitney want the board to consider asking for Kanders’s resignation. Maybe, someday, those staffers will be the senior leadership. Maybe they would recognize his response as nonsense—that he’s just the maker of tear gas, not the user—and fire him themselves. Maybe they would be the kind of people who would notice that while he tells us his weapons are “nonlethal” he tells his buyers they’re “less lethal” and would halt his appointment to the board in the first place. I wonder if anyone with power now can hear them.

“They’re listening increasingly, but the bigger the museum, the larger the cruise ship is to turn. It takes a long time to change,” Thompson said. “Museums get very nervous when you say something is wrong in one circumstance—suddenly do you have to kick half your trustees off your board? They tend to catastrophize. It’s much easier to hide behind, ‘We’re here for the public good. We’re just pretty art.’”