Embracing Our Differences, an arts and education non-profit, announced this week that it cancelled a scheduled art exhibit due to be staged on the Manatee-Sarasota campus of the State College of Florida this April.
Since 2003, the organization has put on an annual exhibit in Sarasota’s Bayfront Park and, for the non-profit’s 20th anniversary this year, their annual exhibition was going to travel for the first time. Its third stop on tour would be to SCF, which began talks with the organization early last year.
But, earlier this month, officials from the university approached the non-profit to inform them that it wanted the words “diversity” and “inclusion” excised from the exhibit, Sarah Wertheimer, executive director of Embracing Our Differences, told ARTnews.
“But promoting those values is literally the goal of our organization,” Wertheimer said.
Embracing Our Differences typically uses billboards, whose art and photographs are sourced through international submissions, to teach about diversity and inclusion.
While negotiating the terms of the exhibit, SCF requested that pieces in the exhibit be put up for discussion in case the works were triggering or difficult for their students. The university said it was especially concerned about student-veterans who suffer from PTSD, according to Wertheimer. Embracing Our Differences agreed and, in turn, asserted that if the integrity of the exhibit was in jeopardy, it had the right to cancel the exhibit at the Manatee-Sarasota campus. The non-profit also brought a child and adult psychologist on their board in order to prevent any potentially damaging work from being shown.
Then, according to Wertheimer, in early February, after art was selected, an SCF spokesperson called to raise concerns about the use of “diversity” and “inclusion” in the show, particularly in one piece that has a quotation at the bottom, submitted by a 5th grader from India, that reads: “Diversity and inclusion are like the needle and thread that stitch together the harmonious fabric of peace for humankind.”
“I asked if this was up for discussion, but they were firm that they wanted these pieces removed,” said Wertheimer. “So we knew we needed to stand strong and not let our artists be censored.”
Though the non-profit pulled the show from UCF, it will still be available to view at other locations and the K-12 schools that were planning field-trips to the exhibit will still be able to do so, though it may now be a bit more difficult for those in Manatee County. Hundreds of thousands of school children visited last year’s exhibition, according to the non-profit’s website.
Wertheimer added that the day the non-profit got the call was the same day that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis spoke at the campus about his new proposed legislation that will eliminate funding for diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.
DeSantis’s office has said it believes DEI initiatives to be a tactic “of liberal elites who suppress free thought in the name of identity politics and indoctrination,” according to a recent press release. That proposed legislation has not yet been passed into law.
SCF did not respond to multiple requests for comment.