Prison Abolition Art in Florida Removed Under University Pressure (2023)

MIAMI — A Florida exhibition of artwork expressing messages of prison abolition was taken down days after opening — only to be the target of repeated acts of vandalism. Last fall, members of Florida Prisoner Solidarity (FPS), along with University of Florida (UF) art students and MFA candidates, were invited by 4Most Gallery to create a new iteration of a show that had already debuted in Tampa and Orlando starting in 2019. Burn It Down: Communications of Resistance featured prisoner artwork and letters, workshops, installations, and discussions of the Florida prison system. The show had its opening reception on March 10 in Gainesville. There was an altar installation as a tribute to activist Karen Smith, who was a loved founder of FPS and died in 2020, and banners with the words “ABOLISH PRISONS,” “ABOLISH THE POLICE,” and “END PRISON SLAVERY” hung outside on the roof of the gallery. Around 100 people in the community showed up on opening.

4Most is UF’s School of Art and Art History’s off-campus gallery, which features art from students and the local community. Florida Prisoner Solidarity is “a carceral abolitionist collective” focused on “the needs of all incarcerated individuals, their care networks, and the people in the community with them,” as stated on the group’s website.

On March 13, Ron Cunningham, a retired journalist and Gainesville local who was biking by and saw the banners, published a text about the exhibition on his blog, Free GNV. “This struck me as being a pretty gutsy display on the part of faculty and students whose university is increasingly coming under the authoritarian thumb of The DeSanitizer,” Cunningham wrote, referring to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. “Kudos for that sort of rare courage. If art is not a form of revolution, it is nothing.”

Two days later, on March 15, the banners came down. UF had received a request for comment from a local paper, The Alachua Chronicle, which deemed the artworks “anti-police,” and someone had sent an anonymous tip to the University of Florida’s Police Department. A UF administrator then called the curator, Kayla Burnett, and asked them to remove them.

“They told me that the struggle with the exhibition was that it looked like the University of Florida was saying these things,” Burnett, a UF alum who works at the gallery, told Hyperallergic. “So the administration ultimately decided to take them down because they didn’t want others to think it was UF speech instead of the artists who hung them up.”

Once the banners were taken down, the dean of UF’s College of the Arts, Onye Ozuzu, and the director of the college, Elizabeth Ross, met with the group of artists and activists to work together.

“They said that the way the banners were displayed made it look like UF was saying these things instead of it being an artwork,” said an artist in the show who requested anonymity. “But we don’t need to make it apparent to everybody that the gallery is an art building, and if they really wanted to work with us, then put the banners back up first and then we can have a conversation.”

After this incident, the artists decided to close the gallery to rearrange the show and include censorship as a theme. Workshops were conducted at the space, and they planned to open again for a closing reception on March 29.

But on the morning of March 28, four rocks were thrown at the gallery windows.

This vandalism incident is not an isolated event. Within the span of one year in the city of Gainesville, multiple murals advocating for diverse social justice causes have been defaced, with the Institute of Black Culture, the Pride Center, and Planned Parenthood among those targeted. Last fall, flyers bearing antisemitic and white supremacist messages were anonymously distributed.

“I think what DeSantis has done with academia and the state of Florida in general has made it very scary to be political,” Burnett told Hyperallergic. “This show had already been done two years ago at the same gallery. The fact that It wasn’t protested and vandalized then, compared to now, speaks to the volume of what is going on in the state of Florida.”

In response to Hyperallergic’s request for comment, UF spokesperson Cynthia Roldán stressedthat UF is committed to free expression but must ensure the safety of students and the community.

“One of the ways that we do this is to maintain clarity that the positions and perspectives of students, scholars, artists, speakers, faculty, etc. that are presented on our platforms do not represent those of the College of the Arts or the University of Florida,” Roldán said. “This clarity is intended to foster free expression by artists and an open exchange of ideas, one where diverse perspectives intersect in an environment that optimizes learning.”Roldán added that the artists and curator had not sought approval to install artwork on the roof and exterior walls as required.

Prison Abolition Art in Florida Removed Under University Pressure (1)

Following the incident, the participating artists decided to empty out the entire show and leave only the censorship and vandalization themes as part of the closing night reception pieces, along with the banners outside the gallery. Inside the space, part of a statement from FPS read, “Fascists can throw rocks, but they are mere pebbles against the abolitionist movement. Solidarity Forever.”

The windows of the gallery had been boarded up after being vandalized, and overnight, someone spray-painted the words “Fuck off fascists” on the boards as a response to the intimidation. An hour before the reception, while artists were standing outside, a UF administrator hung up a sign with an arrow pointing to the spray-painted message reading “THIS IS ARTISTS’ SPEECH, NOT UF’S SPEECH.”

On Tuesday, April 11, the windows were shattered a second time, even though the show had already ended and the gallery was empty.

Prison Abolition Art in Florida Removed Under University Pressure (2)

In recent weeks the Florida state legislature has advanced a bill, HB 999, censoring university DEIA, gender, and queer studies — the latest effort to push through extreme conservative legislation introduced by state Republicans and backed by Governor DeSantis after last year’s “Don’t Say Gay” law and “Stop WOKE Act.” At the University of Florida, DeSantis appointed three new members to the board of trustees in 2021. The Independent Alligator reported last year that the school’s Honors Program director was fired without an explanation. This February, DeSantis appointed Republican Party donor Patrick Zalupski to the board. The school also named a new conservative president, former senator and businessman Ben Sasse, who was opposed by faculty members and students who protested his selection.

Meghan Moe Beitiks, an assistant professor in the Theatre Department at Concordia University in Montreal who taught at UF for three years as a studio art lecturer beginning in 2018, said she was not surprised by the vandalism.

“I would have liked to see more explicit support from the school toward the artists and curators,” Beitiks told Hyperallergic. “To see they understood that a lot of art historically blurs the line between art and life, that a lot of art challenges people and makes them uncomfortable, demands a better world.”

“That is arguably an essential part of what art does and how it functions,” Beitiks continued. “If your artists are making people uncomfortable with their calls for necessary change, that is an opening for a moment of education and conversation. It is not a moment to backpedal or reconfigure things.”

Lexus Shambria Giles, an artist and MFA candidate at UF, said that although faculty told students the new bill wouldn’t affect them, the censorship followed by vandalism at the gallery suggests otherwise.

“There have been so many protests on campus dealing with the new university president, the ban on abortion, and others,” Giles told Hyperallergic.

“I want my fellow peers to know that this is our time to fight back,” she added. “I think it’s important for everyone to stand together rather than play the blame game. It’s sad that we have to tiptoe around as artists or make artwork that is romanticized while the world around us burns in flames.”

Prison Abolition Art in Florida Removed Under University Pressure (3)


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