Craft Alliance cancels art exhibit with works addressing the Israeli–Palestinian conflict

Two artists say they deserve a public apology after Craft Alliance canceled their exhibit, halted their residencies, and accused them of violating diversity, equity, inclusion, and anti-bullying policies—all because of their artwork.

Allora McCullough and Dani Collette, both based in St. Louis, had been chosen through a juried process to be artists-in-residence at the nonprofit craft-focused art organization based on the Delmar Loop. The residencies culminated in an exhibition that opened June 21, Planting Seeds, Sprouting Hope, featuring artwork expressing solidarity with the Palestinian people.

But in the hour before the exhibition opened to the public, the artists say Craft Alliance removed two linked pieces made by Collette: a glass dish with a keffiyeh print titled “Symbol of Solidarity” and the small glass watermelon seeds she’d nestled inside it, each inscribed “Land Back.” The organizers also took down the title cards displaying the names of two other works, one titled “From the River to the Sea” and the other “Indigenous to Palestine,” which had been paired with a gold mirror etching of an olive branch.

As the AP has reported, “From the River to the Sea” has become a highly controversial phrase—with some supporters of Israel saying it calls for their elimination, while many Palestinians insist it’s a call for peace and equality. “My goal was to help in the understanding of why Palestinians were using that phrase,” Collette says. “My goal is always to be a voice for the oppressed—because of who I am and where I come from, I understand oppression.” A queer artist of Indigenous descent, Collette says she used the phrase “Land Back” to apply a concept used by Native Americans to the situation in Gaza. “It’s a peaceful call,” she says. “It’s not in any way meant to be a call for keeping anyone out of anywhere.”

After the pieces were taken down, the opening went on as planned (the artists say they sold $3,000 worth of items). But on Monday, they were informed that their residencies had been terminated, and Craft Alliance posted on Instagram that the exhibition had been removed “due to the artists’ violation of Craft Alliance’s policies on anti-bullying, diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility.”

“The artwork and titles contained antisemitic imagery and slogans calling for violence and the destruction of the Jewish state of Israel,” the post read. “Despite repeated requests, the artists did not share the artwork and titles with organization leadership prior to the exhibit.”

McCullough and Collette both say that’s not true and that not only were Craft Alliance staff aware of what they were working on but also discussed with them how they could achieve their goal of raising money for a Palestinian family without putting the organization’s nonprofit status at risk. While they acknowledge they were tardy in finishing up titles for their work, they say they shared them as soon as they were done, which was a day before the opening—and then worked with Craft Alliance staffers to prepare the title cards used in the display. No one raised any objections, they say. “I felt completely blindsided,” Collette says. “I would have been very open to a discussion about the works or a request to explain myself prior to that night.” McCullough agrees.

Reached by email during a day of jury duty on Thursday, Craft Alliance executive director Bryan Knightly said he knew about the exhibit’s broad themes but not its specifics until 45 minutes before the opening, when a volunteer discovered “antisemitic slogans and artwork.” He said the short timing left his organization with little choice but swift action and also notes that Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib’s use of the “From the River to the Sea” led to her censure by fellow members of the U.S. House of Representatives. The phrase has also been condemned as antisemitic by Jewish organizations including the Anti-Defamation League.

“While we are saddened by this situation, and for the artists, we are following policies and procedures for the concern and safety of our staff, volunteers, members, donors, students, and patrons,” he wrote. “Most organizations who work with artists to display political work conduct significant pre-work to educate staff, patrons, and children—especially children and their parents. These artists did not provide us with an opportunity to provide education to the community in any meaningful way. Finalizing a political exhibition hours before it opens is careless and these artists left the burden of public interpretation up to our staff and volunteers.” 

If the cancellation was shocking to Collette, though, it put McCullough in an even odder place. While her pieces for the exhibit shared a focus on Palestine, none of hers were singled out as problematic at the opening, the artists say. Yet she was also informed on Monday not only that her residency was being terminated a month early but that she was no longer welcome to teach at Craft Alliance, which had been her primary source of income. “That’s my entire mortgage payment,” she says. (Knightly did not respond directly to questions about McCullough’s treatment.)

She’s horrified to be called out for antisemitism, which she insists is antithetical to her values. “Everything I’ve ever done as an artist is to promote peace and understanding,” she says. “The public defamation, that I would be these things, is extremely painful to me.” 

McCullough and Collette say they had never met prior to being separately selected for the residency. They bonded over months of working on site, and they each say they found a new sense of purpose when they collectively decided in May to focus their art on the conflict in Palestine and raise money for a family there. “I’ve been working with glass for 15 years,” Collette says. “This is my proudest body of work, my most important body of work.”

For now, the art remains in the exhibition space, though the windows have been papered over and the doors closed. The artists and the organization have been unable to agree on the terms of a meeting that would allow them to sit down together in person. (McCullough says she now has legal representation.)

Their artwork will still get a public viewing: Fifteen Windows Gallery (3155 Cherokee) has announced that it will host the exhibition for a month, with the opening reception now scheduled for July 13 and artist talks on August 10.

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