MANATEE COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) — Sarasota nonprofit Embracing Our Differences aims to educate and inspire a better world through the power of the arts, according to its website. The organization is celebrating its 20th anniversary with an exhibition with the theme “Embracing Kindness.”
This year’s display features pieces from artists of all ages from around the globe.
The exhibit is currently at Bayfront Park in Downtown Sarasota. It was scheduled to move to Butler Park in North Port before heading to State College of Florida in Bradenton in late April. The schedule for April is currently up in the air after its stop at SCF was recently called off.
As part of their agreement with the nonprofit, SCF representatives said their leadership team was to review the pieces of art before the showcase. During the review, the college raised concerns about three pieces and decided to ask Embracing Our Differences to exclude those pieces from the display on their campus.
College officials tell 8 On Your Side they were concerned a piece titled “Body and Voice” could be ‘visually offensive’ to some. They had the same concern with a display called “Good Trouble”. There was concern surrounding a third piece due to a quote in the bottom left corner which was written by a fifth-grade student from India and said “diversity and inclusion are like the needle and thread that stitch together a harmonious fabric of peace for humankind.”
Associate VP of Communications and Government Relations with SCF Jamie Smith explains the reasoning behind the school leaders’ decision.
“Two pieces we found that could be visually offensive. The other one was the definition of diversity and inclusion. We wanted it to be based on what we define diversity and inclusion. There are a lot of different definitions of what it could be, we wanted to say this is what it means to us, and not deviate from that,” explained Smith. “We would have happily offered to host it if those three pieces were not included. There are so many beautiful pieces that were to be included in this display and will be included in this display wherever it should choose its new home. When we decided not to host it, we said, can we help you find another place. We have been nothing, but trying to be a partner,” she continued.
Representatives with Embracing Our Differences say they were surprised by SCF’s decision.
“We went to our Board of Directors and spoke with them about their concerns and we just determined that we didn’t feel comfortable removing those pieces from the exhibit as they exemplified our values as an organization. We didn’t feel that they were inflammatory or offensive in any way based on our judging criteria, and we thought they were great conversations for the community to have,” said Learning and Engagement Director Ben Jewell-Plocher. “The whole point of the exhibit is that we bring forth different topics from our local and global community for people to have discussions around,” he continued.
A former SCF president is speaking out regarding the cancellation of the display at SCF.
“I think it’s very unfortunate at the art will not be displayed at SCF because SCF has always been a place for intellectual discernment and growth, thoughtful reflection, and for widening of the width and breadth of students’ abilities to grapple with the world around them. That is part of the beauty of the campus and the college,” said SCF’s fifth president Dr. Lars Hafner.
He says the school flagging the piece with the quote from the young student was especially surprising to him.
“There is a verse in the Bible that says, ‘and a little child shall lead them’, and this here is a fifth grader, who actually went out to create inclusion and a conversation that sometimes art can do, that words cannot do. To want to take down an art piece with a fifth grader’s quote, a 12-year-old, it’s pretty reprehensible in the fact that they are just trying to articulate the meaning of diversity. It goes against the basic fabric of what higher education stands for, and that is to have students learn, and think outside the box and art can project that kind of value to them,” said Dr. Hafner.
“Art is subjective, as are quotations. The goal of the exhibit is not that we have one viewpoint that all must agree upon, it is actually to present many different viewpoints,” said Jewell-Plocher.
SCF says it has worked with Embracing Our Differences in the past and hopes to do so again in the future. The nonprofit said it hopes for the same.
“You can agree to disagree and that is okay,” said Smith.
“We hope this is one conversation in the midst of many conversations, as opposed to saying that this is an argument or disagreement. This is a conversation about what we feel the exhibit portrays, and the meaning of the word, ‘diversity and inclusion’ and another,” said Jewell-Plocher.
Embracing Our Differences is still looking for a venue in Manatee County to host its exhibit this spring.