(NEW YORK) –  PEN America called on Daytona State College in Florida to reschedule a photo exhibition by Jon Henry in light of a dispute over why the show was cancelled. PEN America said the contentious development creates a “troubling precedent” and called on the college to offer to host the show in the future.

A month before the show was set to open at the college’s Southeast Museum of Photography, Henry received notice of the cancellation of his exhibition Stranger Fruit, which had been on the calendar for two years. The letter cancelling the show claimed the gallery where it was to be held sustained water damage and had to be closed.

Then, Henry shared a letter sent anonymously to him on Aug. 17 claiming the show was cancelled because his photographs, referencing police violence, would “call negative attention to the college and conflict with their educational program on training future police officers.” The letter writer claimed to be a former employee of the college.

Stranger Fruit captures Black mothers with their sons positioned in a similar way to Michelangelo’s “Pietà,” the artist’s 15th-century sculpture of the Virgin Mary holding the body of Jesus. The six-year-long project reflected on the police murders of Black men in the United States. The series was awarded the top prize for The Arnold Newman Prize for New Directions in Photographic Portraiture.

PEN America confirmed details of the two letters from Henry after they were first reported by the art publication Hyperallergic.

Hyperallergic said it requested a comment from Daytona’s Director of Marketing and Communications Chris Thomes who “did not address whether the content of the images was a factor in the exhibition’s cancellation, despite multiple inquiries, and did not comment on why the museum did not reschedule the show.” The college said it paid Henry an honorarium and covered the expenses to send the artwork back.

Julie Trebault, director of PEN America’s Artists at Risk Connection, said in light of the dispute over why the show was cancelled, the college should offer to hold it at a future date.

“As a public college, Daytona has an obligation to uphold academic and artistic freedom; if the revelations in this [anonymous] letter are true, it is a democratic imperative that the college promptly offer to reinstate Henry’s exhibition. The free exchange of ideas that defines higher education must include artistic expression. The college’s action establishes a troubling precedent, in which educational institutions might conceal censorship under superficial justifications, evading responsibility for censoring the vital realm of artistic creativity.”

About the Artists at Risk Connection

The Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) is a project of PEN America dedicated to assisting imperiled artists and fortifying the networks and organizations that support them. If you or someone you know is an artist at risk, please contact ARC.

About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. Learn more at pen.org.

Contact: Suzanne Trimel, [email protected], 201-247-5057