On Florida’s Atlantic coast, photographer Jon Henry’s Stranger Fruit (2014–2021) series was scheduled to grace the walls of Daytona State College’s Southeast Museum of Photography (SMP) from January 11 through April 15 this year. Instead, the gallery space sat empty and the works in the show — nearly two years in the making — were shipped back to Henry, unseen by visitors. A month before the opening, Henry was told that the exhibition was canceled due to water damage caused by a heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) malfunction at the museum. The quiet move came at a time of increasing cultural censorship in Governor Ron DeSantis’s Florida.
Now, an anonymous letter and the account of a former worker suggest that the school’s administration canceled Henry’s show because of its subject matter — police violence — and instructed museum staffers to tell Henry and the public it was because of HVAC problems in the gallery.
The subjects of Henry’s Stranger Fruit series are Black mothers and their sons, positioned in a way that recalls Michelangelo’s “Pietà” — the artist’s 15th-century sculpture of the Virgin Mary holding the body of Jesus. Henry started the project in 2014 as a reflection on the police murders of Black men. He has since completed the nearly six-year-long project and recently published the photographs as a book.
On December 16, 2022, Henry received an email from SMP informing him that “the museum’s lower gallery sustained significant water damage relating to the HVAC system over the course of the evening” and that his show had to be “indefinitely” canceled. Nine months later, on Thursday, August 17, Henry took to Instagram to share an anonymous letter he had received. “Dear Jon Henry, I can’t tell you who I am, but I have mulled over sending you this letter for many months now. My only regret is not sending it sooner … I can’t hold in this truth any longer,” the typed page-long letter begins. The author goes on to name the alleged truth behind the show’s cancelation: that Daytona State College feared Henry’s photos would “call negative attention to the college and conflict with their educational program on training future police officers.”
“I believe administration would welcome an exhibition about police violence and racism on this level, but they would want it filtered to carefully follow the narrative they desire,” the letter continued.
In an interview with Hyperallergic, Henry said he questioned the HVAC story “in the back of [his mind]” but didn’t push back at the time. The artist added that he believes it’s important to fight back against the bans on books, art, and history spreading across the United States.
“The country cannot allow this to happen,” Henry said. “Education is critical and America’s history is more layered and nuanced than this single slant Florida, Texas, and other places with these bans are presenting.”
A former employee who worked at the museum during the December saga confirmed the anonymous letter’s account. “That’s exactly how it happened,” the former worker, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of legal retaliation, told Hyperallergic. They explained that the school said Stranger Fruit had to be shut down because it “doesn’t align with the school’s values” and pointed specifically to the content surrounding police brutality. Daytona State College runs a small police training program.
“[The museum leadership] told us the administration wanted us to tell anyone who was asking — visitors or employees of the college — that it was a flooding issue because of recent hurricanes, but that wasn’t the truth,” the former employee stated.
In response to Hyperallergic‘s requests for comment, Daytona State College Director of Marketing and Communications Chris Thomes said the museum was suffering from “water damage caused by HVAC equipment” which was exacerbated by Hurricane Ian and Hurricane Nicole last fall. “Repairs to the museum required portions of the facility, including the gallery where Mr. Henry’s works were to be shown, to be closed,” he said. “Some of those repairs are ongoing to this day.” Thomes added that the museum paid Henry his retainer and covered the cost of shipping back his works.
Thomes did not address whether the content of the images was a factor in the exhibition’s cancelation, despite multiple inquiries, and did not comment on why the museum did not reschedule the show. In response to an email pointedly asking the school to confirm or deny the allegations that the exhibition was canceled over the subject matter of Henry’s photographs, Thomes shared a 56-page PDF with Hyperallergic containing work orders, emails, and invoices detailing HVAC repairs to the museum. Work orders from as early as September 16, 2022 contain requests for the school to fix water damage in the museum. An October 4 request asking the facilities staff to check for new leaks reads, “We do not want the art to be damaged, but we don’t want to close the gallery unnecessarily.” The museum asks for the school to fix leaks in the kitchen in November and December. Fixes appear to be made in March and April of this year.
The Stranger Fruit exhibition at SMP had been in the works since 2021. Former Director Erin Gordon, who worked at the museum from January 2020 through February 2022, included a description of the project in her submission for the state’s 2022–2023 Florida Division of Arts and Culture Grant, which is distributed by the 15 members of the governor-appointed Florida Council on Arts and Culture. The proposal received high marks, and Gordon secured funding.
Gordon told Hyperallergic that before she left her position at SMP, she ensured two 2023 exhibitions were in place: Stranger Fruit and a self-portraiture show curated by University of Alabama, Birmingham photography professor Jillian Marie Browning titled Threshold — an 11-artist show featuring intimate photographs taken by artists in marginalized communities. The two exhibitions were intended to run in tandem and share educational programming.
By early December 2022, Henry’s work had arrived at the museum. It was unpacked, registered, and ready to be hung. The museum staff finalized a press release about Stranger Fruit and sent it to the school’s marketing department for distribution. The document, reviewed by Hyperallergic, describes the show as “a solo exhibition featuring increasingly relevant works on police violence and motherly grief.”
A few days later, the museum’s current director, Whitney Broadaway, called all museum staff for a meeting.
“You could tell it was really bad news,” the former worker told Hyperallergic. Broadaway proceeded to tell them that Henry’s show had been canceled. The former staff member said the press release had been reviewed by college President Thomas LoBasso, who allegedly shut the show down. (Thomes, the college spokesperson, told Hyperallergic that it is “standard procedure” for senior administrators to review press releases for the museum and added that the school’s marketing department was made aware of the museum gallery closure due to damages after the press release had been submitted for review.)
The former employee described the news of the show’s cancelation as “shocking.” “We didn’t know the college had the power to do that because it hadn’t really happened before.” They explained the staff was excited for the show and its supplementary programming and felt that all of their work — and Henry’s — had been for nothing. The staff started asking questions: “Does Jon [Henry] know? Is there anything we can do?”
“She was asking all of her superiors the same questions,” the former worker said of Broadaway, who has not responded to Hyperallergic‘s request for comment. “Can we change the language of the press release? Can we change this? Minor adjustments that wouldn’t take away from [Henry’s] work, because none of us wanted to mince his words.”
“It was so awkward,” said the former staff member. “All of us were upset that we had to tell visitors that, but also that the director was forced to tell Jon this, too.”
Henry, the former worker, and the author of the anonymous letter were all explicit and adamant about Broadaway’s support for their projects and positive force on the museum. Browning, whose exhibition Threshold went on as planned, said they felt that Broadaway was an avid supporter of their work, which included nudity, self-portraits by trans people, and other subject matter that could have proved potentially contentious in Florida’s current political environment.
Gordon, the former director who now serves as the collections and loan manager at the Art Institute of Chicago, is an alumna of Daytona State College. She says she feels sorry for the school’s students and community who didn’t get to experience Henry’s work. “But I am most sorry to Jon, whose incredible work deserves to be seen, appreciated, and valued,” Gordon said. “I am sorry that the Daytona State College Admin refuses to see that.”
“If, as I suspect, the reason is simply that they did not want to upset Governor DeSantis and risk having funding withheld — a prevalent threat among Florida’s public institutions — that is, in my view, both an act of cowardice and censorship,” Gordon continued. “Something the Florida Governor claims he is adamant about protecting students from.”
“This is the real cancel culture,” Henry wrote on his Instagram. “Banning books, exhibitions, anything that goes against these fascist, white supremacist, police propaganda views. A complete joke. Not even a chance to represent my work and views. Everything just ignored to further maintain their narrative and rewrite of history.”