Ford Foundation’s Walker wavers on the Whitney’s Kanders crisis

Sep 16, 2019

A (merely) diversity-minded progressive donor should indeed venture with utmost caution into the unsettled new world of cultural philanthropy.

The crafters and spinners in the Ford Foundation’s PR department must be working overtime these days. The task at hand: to reconcile two dramatically different takes by Ford president Darren Walker on the crisis at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, which has been shaken like many other cultural institutions by the new debate over “tainted money.”

Darren Walker (Wikimedia Commons)

Walker, Take #1, came immediately after longtime Whitney supporter Warren Kanders stepped down (or more accurately, was driven) from the museum’s board. As The Giving Review recently noted, Kanders owns Safariland, a manufacturer of police and military gear, among which is the tear gas used to disperse unruly crowds around the world. His resignation followed months of protest organized by Decolonize This Place, an “action-oriented movement” mobilizing behind causes well beyond defenestrating unsavory museum board members, including closing down all prisons, de-gentrifying the outer boroughs of New York, and reestablishing Palestinian hegemony “from the river to the sea.”

In a New York Times op-ed published July 26, the day after Kanders resigned, Walker seems almost to welcome this evidence that “museums have become contested spaces in a rapidly-changing country.” He describes the contestants as, on one side, “trustees who benefit from a distorted economic system that protects and promotes inequality;” who “expect appreciation, not scrutiny, for giving generously as government support for the arts wanes;” and are “offended by the accusation that they use museums to launder, or ‘artwash,’ their reputations.”

On the other side, he continues, “are the people whom the system excludes and exploits.” Happily, though, “an increasingly diverse viewing public, and growing protest movements, are calling for installations and institutions that represent a broader cross-section of America. They demand museums serve more than the interests of the elite.”

Writing from his modest, glass-walled office in what’s now called the Ford Foundation Center for Social Justice, it’s not difficult to discern where Walker’s sympathies lie in this contest. He goes on to propose that museums radically diversify their curatorial staffs, that arts foundations emphasize “diversity and inclusion in their grantmaking,” and, of course, that “boards need to include members from more diverse perspectives and backgrounds.” Clearly, in Walker’s view, “boards have veered too far toward only appointing trustees with wealth,” thereby missing out on “new visitors, artists, communities and constituencies.”

So Walker, Take #1, seems to welcome the “growing protest movements” on behalf of social justice. They were, after all, helping to push American culture toward greater egalitarianism and diversity, moving it “from tokenism to transformation.”

A new take

Walker, Take #2, came a little more than a month later, on September 10. That’s the day Andrew Goldstein published an interview with Walker in artnet, revealingly entitled “‘We Don’t Need to Demonize Wealthy People’: Ford Foundation President Darren Walker on the Unnerving Aftermath of the Warren Kanders Protests.”

As Goldstein notes, “Kanders’s resignation sent the museum world reeling, posing questions that—for institutions reliant on private patronage—bordered on existential.” Goldstein enumerates some of the questions the episode raised:

Is there such a thing as immaculate money? What litmus test would be extensive enough to placate critics? And how can you convince wealthy donors to fund a museum if they know their names can be stripped off the walls the moment the source of their money falls afoul of popular sentiment?

Goldstein acknowledges Walker’s earlier take on the Whitney fracas as “an opportunity to address issues of inequality, remaking their boards, staff, and programming to better reflect America’s growing diversity.”  

But then, he abruptly resets the mood: “the rhetoric of populist anger toward wealthy donors is something that makes Walker profoundly uneasy—in large part because he, better than most, understands how reliant culture is upon private philanthropy.”

In his opening response to Goldstein, Walker gives us a new take on the Whitney controversy: “I think what was really unfortunate about this is that, among museums in America, the Whitney stands out for its diversity. This is the irony here—there is probably no museum in America that has done more to transform itself in terms of its programming, its curatorial staff, its identity, than the Whitney.” 

Diversity, he notes, is indeed “additive to a board’s effectiveness and success.” But “at the same time, it would be really unfortunate if the result of this would be to discourage generous donors from joining museum boards.”

He continues: “It would be a grave error to demonize wealthy people. That is something I find regrettable about the discourse around the Whitney board, around this whole controversy.”

Walker goes on to challenge the motivation of those who brought Kanders down.  “I think what is disturbing is the rhetoric of some of the protestors, who are in favor of destroying the system.” Those who “want to destroy the system, want to destroy museums, don’t have a solution or a reasonable alternative to offer.” 

Walker reminds us that he is indeed a “believer in the need to dismantle some of the systems and structures that represent a kind of white hegemony.” And he is fully aware that he leads a foundation “named for a man who, while he was a great industrialist … was a known anti-Semite and racist.” Nonetheless, he insists, “it would be a grave mistake to destroy a cultural ecosystem that needs reform, not destruction.”

So Walker, Take #2, appears to snatch the welcome mat from beneath the protestors whose energy he seems to value in Take #1. What brought about this abrupt reversal? (And, of course, acknowledging that Ford PR will insist that there’s no inconsistency whatsoever between the two takes.)

Diversity and decolonization

No doubt one or two persons of wealth placed anguished phone calls to Walker after the Kanders resignation, especially in light of other philanthropic controversies prompted by the Koch and Sackler families and Jeffrey Epstein. 

But I also suspect that the intelligence branch of Ford PR passed along its dossier summarizing the larger philosophy animating anti-Kanders groups like Decolonize This Place. As we noted earlier in TGR, Decolonize laid out its own account of the Whitney episode in “After Kanders, Decolonization Is the Way Forward.”

By decolonization, it means re-examining all museum practices by a Decolonization Commission, as recommended initially by an open letter signed by 400 writers and artists the previous May. The Commission would include “community stakeholders and [be] guided by a variety of urgent principles: Indigenous land rights and restitution, reparations for enslavement and its legacies, the dismantling of patriarchy, workplace democracy, de-gentrification, climate justice, and sanctuary from border regimes and state violence generally.”

The “decolonial perspective,” the piece continues, “acknowledges that the settler-colony of the United States was founded on the theft of land, life, and labor over 400 years;” it “necessitates abolition of prisons and police, borders and bosses, empires and oligarchs.” As if to stoke Walker’s anxiety, it adds to this litany of necessary abolitions the query “what about museums?” Well, “institutions like the Whitney may in the end be unsalvageable … they may be beyond repair and not worthy of our attention. We take this possibility seriously.”

One argument in “After Kanders” is surely directed at Walker, Take #1. Some observers, it notes, had laughably claimed that the “victory against Kanders demonstrates the need for enhanced diversity, inclusion, and representation on museum boards—as if the conflicts that came to a head with Kanders could be resolved by demographic realignment.” But, in fact, the “Kanders crisis” has demonstrated precisely “the limitations of liberal versions of ‘identity politics.’ Why would we imagine that anyone’s racial or ethnic background necessarily aligns that person with justice …? As the saying goes, ‘All my skin folk ain’t kinfolk.’”

So perhaps Walker’s quest for diversity could be satisfied by reorganizing board and staff, but justice might indeed demand the destruction of cultural institutions like the Whitney, built as they are on “the theft of land, life, and labor over 400 years.” In his anxiety about the larger purpose behind the protests, Walker is hardly being an alarmist.

Walker’s anxiety quickly ignited others. On Twitter, New York magazine’s Pulitzer Prize winning art critic Jerry Saltz—who had earlier suggested that Kanders was a “Harvey Weinstein of bad philanthropy”—now announced that “Darren Walker is right.” He continues, “We have to stand up FOR our best institutions. I will. Mark me. The Whitney is probably the most-forward-looking, internally and externally diverse experimental large-scale museum in America. Maybe the world. I helped tear it down in other people’s dishonest fever-dream.”

Decolonize This Place can be forgiven for tweeting in response, “This seems like a coordinated pushback.” But it did some pushing back of its own. Responding to the charge that it threatened museum funding sources, Decolonize tweeted a placard: “WTF. WHOSE CULTURE NEEDS MONEY TO EXIST? OURS SURE AS HELL DOESN’T AND CULTURE SHOULDN’T BE COMMODIFIED TO BEGIN WITH. WONDERING WHY FORD FOUNDATION SOMEHOW KNOWS *BEST*?” (Capitalizations in original.)

Decolonize followed up by tweeting a response to Walker composed by community organizer and visual artist Shellyne Rodrigues. Far from extolling the Ford Foundation’s dedication to social justice, Rodrigues reminds readers that it had, in fact, notoriously diverted genuinely radical movements into more-moderate, merely reformist channels. “It is well documented that foundations, particularly the Ford Foundation, has [sic] actively sought to engineer social change and steer social justice movements,” pacifying them “through funding the formation of the NON PROFIT INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX.” 

Walker, Rodrigues argues, ignores the fact that “museums are growing and expanding IN LOCK STEP with a global shift to the far right and a vicious and ever more violent capitalism that has brought us to where we are now, with a burning amazon rainforest and active concentration camps all across the U.S.”

The diversity-versus-decolonization contest is just heating up, and it is likely to consume other cultural institutions, as long as the decolonizers enjoy success with the tactics they learned from Saul Alinsky. Following his 13th “rule for radicals,” they “pick the target”—the next wealthy board member who made his or her money in undesirable ways—and “freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.” As they did so successfully with Kanders, they “cut off the support network and isolate the target from sympathy.” And they “go after people and not institutions; people hurt faster than institutions.” When Jerry Saltz initially joined the mob against Kanders, he demonstrated how easy it is for well-intentioned progressives to be caught up by this tactic into a piecemeal alienation from institutions they otherwise value.

Give Walker credit: with his own background in community activism (he once directed Harlem’s Abyssinian Development Corporation), he recognized fairly quickly what was happening. And he put himself and his foundation on the line against these tactics, as well as, presumably, the larger agenda of Decolonize This Place. 

Few other cultural leaders have done so. As artnet’s Goldstein points out, “most leaders in the museum field have made themselves scarce, fearing the slightest defensive peep would draw the ire of an energized protest community, now seeking its next target.” The reaction to Walker suggests these fears are not unfounded. Of course, presiding over a foundation that gives away some $650 million a year affords a certain security unavailable to the average museum director.

Contemplating the question in the coming turmoil

The coming turmoil means there’s no easy answer to Goldstein’s piercing question, “How can you convince wealthy donors to fund a museum if they know their names can be stripped off the walls the moment the source of their money falls afoul of popular sentiment?”

Well, for wealthy conservative donors, there is an easy answer, supplied recently by TGR. Stop giving to elite cultural institutions. For those institutions, philanthropy aimed at preserving what we used to call “Western civilization” is no longer considered legitimate, but rather a benighted and retrograde effort to perpetuate an oppressive, racist, patriarchal past. Elite culture is now explicitly aimed at “interrogating” that past—under a bare lightbulb, for 48 hours straight.

It may once have been possible to purchase a kind of social respectability by supporting elite institutions anyway. But the abuse suffered by David Koch even in his death suggests that’s no longer true. If your political views don’t disqualify you, the source of your wealth will, judged according to ever-shifting standards of acceptability. Just spare yourself—and your heirs—the embarrassment of seeing your generosity treated as a risible effort to conceal your own profound evil.

But no such clarity is available to wealthy progressive donors. They aspire to be at the very cutting edge of advanced culture, and they’re more than willing to go along with the “interrogators,” if that’s what it takes. And they believed, along with Walker and Saltz, that the Whitney was as avant-garde as one could be. 

But at the very moment the Whitney seemed to reach peak progressivism—in this year’s Biennial—the Kanders affair introduced a whole new level of unattained wokeness.

Writing for commune, Clark Filio notes that “the roster of this year’s Biennial would be the most diverse in terms of race, gender, and sexuality. Museum administrators no doubt thought this would help secure them public sympathy in light of the controversy escalating at their doorstep.” But they would have been wrong. It turns out there’s an entire dimension of progressive politics sprawling even farther to the left, which regards this sort of diversity as a pathetic neo-liberal diversion from the course of genuine, decolonizing justice.

As the Kanders affair makes clear, non-decolonizing progressive donors had best not count on museum directors and other elite cultural leaders for a spirited defense, when their sources of wealth come under critical examination. Once so solicitous, those guardians of culture do indeed “make themselves scarce” when the angry placards sprout in front of their edifices.

Darren Walker might be counted on for support. But it will be of this nature: You donors think you’re progressive. But remember that, like my own Ford Foundation, there’s all sorts of racism, anti-Semitism, and other evils behind your money. You “benefit from a distorted economic system that protects and promotes inequality.” So you should be willing to help us dismantle “the systems and structures that represent a kind of white hegemony.” Those people protesting your gifts out front? They’re just a few frustrated dismantlers in a hurry. Don’t let them scare you off. 

Gee, thanks for the encouragement … I guess.

A (merely) diversity-minded progressive donor will indeed venture with utmost caution into this unsettled new world of cultural philanthropy.

Protesters demanding Warren Kanders’ resignation from board at Whitney Museum of Art, New York City (Wikimedia Commons)

Recapitulating a controversy

All of this seems to recapitulate the one-sided contest between liberal college presidents and radical student demonstrators during the 1960s. Like Walker, Take #1, the initial impulse of college leaders was to pronounce this the “most-idealistic generation ever,” hoping that at last its activism would awaken the country from its somnolent, bourgeois self-satisfaction.

But as they watched the demonstrators occupying their offices and rifling through their ornate desks, the presidents fell back on Walker, Take #2, urging them not to hastily destroy a system that was, of course, manifestly unjust, but that needed to be dismantled carefully. Most of the elite universities came through that period more or less intact, typically buoyed by healthy endowments. Few of the cultural institutions now embroiled in the same controversy enjoy such a cushion.

While preparing a lengthy personal profile of Darren Walker for publication in The New York Times Magazine this past July, reporter John Leland accompanied him to the opening night of this year’s Whitney Biennial. It was indeed a “showcase for emerging artists—this year heavily female, African-American and oriented toward social justice issues,” Leland observes. “Mr. Walker looked around the Whitney Museum and said, ‘This is why boys from small towns dream of coming to New York.’” 

Walker’s own personal attachment to the Whitney and related institutions is indisputable. His initial success in helping to reshape those institutions according to his vision of social justice is hard to deny. 

But now he must defend that vision from another, outflanking him to the left. While progressivism engages in this bitter internecine quarrel, conservative philanthropists should cultivate their own cultural institutions back home, so that one day, boys from small towns might be content to remain there.