St. Louis Arts Center Scraps Pro-Palestinian Exhibition, Calling It “Antisemitic”

A St. Louis arts center has come under scrutiny for its abrupt cancellation of an exhibition centered around Palestinian liberation. Planting Seeds, Sprouting Hope was slated to open on June 21 with works by stained-glass artist Dani Collette and ceramicist Allora McCullough as the culmination of their 11-month residency at the St. Louis-based arts nonprofit Craft Alliance. Within days of the exhibition’s opening, leadership shut down the show, terminated the two artists’ residencies, and fired McCullough from her position as a part-time arts educator, alleging that the works included “antisemitic imagery and slogans calling for violence and the destruction of the Jewish state of Israel.” 

Over 280 people, including former Craft Alliance artist residents, students, teachers, and donors, have signed an open letter calling for a boycott of the arts nonprofit and the resignation of Executive Director Bryan Knicely and Board Chair Jackie Levin. The letter, published this Monday, July 8, accuses Craft Alliance of “censorship” and “anti-Arab racism, Islamophobia, and specifically anti-Palestinian rhetoric and erasure.”

McCullough and Collette have argued that Craft Alliance staff and leadership were well aware of the exhibition’s pro-Palestinian content in the months leading up to the opening.

“We were very open and very vocal about what we were doing and why so it was quite a shock to walk into that and find that my work had been censored without any communication whatsoever,” Colette told Hyperallergic, referring to the fact that Craft Alliance removed two of her works — a small fused glass bowl titled “Symbol of Solidarity” and a series of watermelon seed-shaped works with the words “Land Back” carved into their surface — and four title cards (one of which featured the phrase “From the River to the Sea” and another with the title “Indigenous to Palestine”) shortly before the opening. 

Emails reviewed by Hyperallergic show that Craft Alliance’s residency program director and development coordinator received photos of some of the artists’ works and a joint statement detailing the exhibition’s focus a month before the opening. 

In an interview with Hyperallergic, Knicely, the organization’s director, told Hyperallergic that Craft Alliance had previously told the artists they were not permitted to take a “political stance” in the exhibition, nor use the show as a fundraising opportunity. (McCullough and Collette were planning to donate proceeds to a Gazan family to help finance their escape to Egypt.)

Knicely also stated that he never received any written artist statements in advance of the show and that the two artists had missed production deadlines, “making and finishing artwork in the last 24 hours leading up to the opening.” (McCullough told Hyperallergic that they were not aware of “any official production deadlines” and that they had completed all the works for the show by the day before, including a piece by Collette that needed to be repaired after being damaged during installation earlier in the week.)

“We were moments out from opening the exhibition when the artists completed installation with labels being the last thing produced and installed,” Knicely said. “When we found the issues, the artists were not in the building, leaving us to act quickly on our own.” He added that “this is also not a censorship issue” given Craft Alliance’s “private nonprofit status” and handbook policy that reserves the organization’s “right to remove artwork deemed inappropriate.”

In response to the open letter, Knicely told Hyperallergic that Craft Alliance’s board “voted unanimously to support both [him] and the actions taken” to close the exhibition.

Hyperallergic has reached out to Board Chair Levin for comment.

Craft Alliance’s leadership maintains that the exhibition’s imagery and language was both antisemitic and violent, citing statements from the pro-Israel groups American Jewish Committee and Anti-Defamation League, plus measures taken by governmental agencies and private organizations regulating the use of the Palestinian protest slogan “from the river to the sea.” In May, a storefront art installation in Miami Beach that alluded to the phrase was removed by the nonprofit organization Oolite Arts, prompting backlash.

Artist Douglas Dale, who briefly stopped into the Craft Alliance gallery on the exhibition’s opening night during an early preview for collectors and members, told Hyperallergic that they did not perceive the exhibition to be violent or offensive and pointed to the fact that the show did not make any mention of Israel or Palestine.

McCullough and Collette are donating proceeds from the exhibition to a Gazan family in need of funds to escape to Egypt.

“I could tell the work that had been done to make sure that there was as much common interest as possible,” Dale said.

This week on Saturday, July 13, a second version of the exhibition Planting Seeds, Sprouting Hope Redux will go on public view at Fifteen Windows Gallery, where it will remain on display for a month. The show has now expanded to be a group exhibition, featuring additional works by 20 Palestinian artists from St. Louis and other cities in the US.

“We’re able to feature Palestinian artists and have more works for sale, which is good for fundraising,” McCullough told Hyperallergic. “We’re also able to spotlight a lot of local businesses who are in support of Palestinian freedom, and I think that’s all really good for the St. Louis community as a whole to see who is standing up to protect those who are asking for help.”

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