Detroit’s Cranbrook Academy of Art is facing criticism for allegedly suppressing displays of solidarity with Palestine. After school administrators confiscated Palestinian flags from students’ studios and other campus spaces on November 4, students and alumni sent a collective letter to school leadership last week decrying the actions.
“The Academy’s email specifying that ‘imagery without a larger educational context can be deeply triggering’ for the minors who attend the lower schools suggests that the very existence of the Palestinian flag is a triggering one; that the very existence of the Palestinian people is dangerous,” read the students’ open letter.
“Cranbrook is making a choice to erase the Palestinian identity from public life, an explicitly political statement that betrays the plurality that the Academy allegedly champions,” the letter continued.
On November 10, Cranbrook President Aimeclaire Roche released a statement denouncing the students’ response, stating that the letter “in no way reflects the views and values of Cranbrook nor does it speak for the institution” and that the school will take “prompt and decisive action” for any type of “hate-based discrimination.”
Several Cranbrook students boycotted the school’s Open House for prospective students on Saturday, November 11, scattering posters throughout the campus that called out the administration’s removal of the Palestinian flags. In addition, Ian Matchett, a Detroit-based oil painter who was touring the school campus as a prospective student on November 11, said that students participating in the boycott had shielded the windows and entrances to their studios, “basically denying the school access to their experience as a way to sell the academy.”
“I am boycotting because I believe this freedom of expression must be preserved,” the posters, decorated with watermelon illustrations, read. “I cannot, in good faith, recommend Cranbrook to any prospective students at this time.”
Matchett told Hyperallergic that he viewed the school’s censorship of “a very basic show of solidarity” as a “ridiculous attack on student speech.”
“[The flags] were not prescribing a solution, or advocating violence; it was just making visible a small part of the international support for the plight of Palestinians,” Matchett added.
In response to Hyperallergic’s request for comment, the school’s Chief Communications Officer Vijay Iyer said that the removal of the flags was part of a practice to keep campus common areas “free of messaging or activities, as displays of this nature could be interpreted as political statements made on behalf of Cranbrook.” He added that adults, unlike younger members of the school community, are allowed to display personal items, such as posters or flags, in their residential spaces.
Hyperallergic made attempts to interview other Cranbrook students for this story; many of them declined to speak, citing a Cranbrook’s student handbook policy that asks faculty, staff, and students to abstain from communicating with the media and instead refer journalists to the school’s communications team.
The letter was followed by the departure of the school’s director, Paul Sacaridiz, on November 8, as first reported by the Detroit Metro Times. Iyer told Hyperallergic that Cranbrook will share updates on leadership at a later date; it is unclear whether Sacaridiz’s departure is related to the recent events. A few campus events have been canceled in the wake of the controversy, including an alumni reunion and a memorial for former staff member Carl Toth, according to the Detroit Metro Times.
Some members of the Cranbrook community who signed the open letter say they’ve faced backlash beyond the school. Caroline Del Giudice, a sculptor and Cranbrook alumna, told the Detroit Metro Times that after she signed the open letter, she received a phone call from the owner of David Klein Gallery — the Michigan-based art gallery that represents her work.
“He goes, ‘You ruined your art market. Don’t you know who your collectors are?’” Del Giudice told the paper.
She later shared on Instagram that the gallery subsequently dropped her from its roster in response to her signing onto the open letter. But despite this repercussion, she continued to urge others to focus on the real violence taking place in Gaza.
In response to Hyperallergic’s request for comment, Klein explained that while he supports free speech and artists’ right to expression, he “cannot represent artists who sign on to a letter whose rhetoric is vehemently antisemitic and denies Israel’s right to exist.”
The Cranbrook student-led actions come as students from other art schools have vocalized solidarity with Palestine in the form of demonstrations and their own collective letters. Most recently, Columbia University temporarily suspended its chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace, two advocacy groups, after a massive campus walkout last week. On October 25, students from Cooper Union also made national headlines for staging a peaceful protest outside the school’s library. Additionally, the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) student chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine released its own open letter within the past week criticizing the neutral stance of the art school’s leadership and further demanding that the institution cut ties with weapons manufacturer Textron, which provides the school with annual grants.