By Mike Martinez Community Beat Reporter
SARASOTA, Fla. – At New College of Florida, a burst of artistic expression emerged earlier this year when a group of talented artists took their brushes to the walls of the NCF campus. These artists, inspired by an art class offered by the school, painted murals that not only added color to the campus but also inspired dialogue about the diversity of art, inclusivity, and the many changes that were sweeping through the institution. Little did they know that their creative expressions would become central to a controversy that would cause trouble for the college and its community throughout the year.
In January, NCF witnessed significant changes as six out of 13 members of its Board of Trustees were replaced by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. This brought a conservative shift in the institution’s direction, with critical race theory opponent Christopher Rufo joining the new board. One of the immediate controversies of this change was the board’s decision to abolish diversity, equity, and inclusion programs at the school.
The following month, the Board of Trustees made another significant move. In February, they appointed Richard Corcoran, formerly appointed by DeSantis as the state commissioner of education, as the interim president of NCF. This appointment marked yet another step in reshaping the institution’s leadership and policies.
In July, Corcoran announced a “beautification” plan for the campus. However, the plan took an unexpected turn when it included painting murals done by the school’s artists. This revelation came as a shock, as no prior notice had been given to the artists.
Five NCF artists, Annie Dong, Hannah Barker, Emma Curtis, Hanh Nguyen, and Jay Murphy, painted murals on the campus’ exterior walls of the Fine Arts Complex last fall thanks to the On-Site Mural Painting course led by Professor of Art Kim Anderson.
Each mural is a unique reflection of individual students’ personal histories and their ties to the campus community. Their themes range from the local Florida environment and wildlife to the celebration of cultural heritage and the embrace of diversity.
One of the murals done by artist Annie Dong focuses on red-crowned cranes and their symbolism in Chinese culture.
“I poured my heart into creating a mural inspired by Chinese culture at New College. The college houses a Chinese department that teaches students about the literature and culture,” Dong said. “Being able to bring a piece of the culture to life on our campus was an immensely personal and meaningful journey for me, because I didn’t have that growing up.”
All but one of the murals created by the artists at NCF were painted over as part of an effort to “beautify” the campus.
“I felt disappointed to have my mural painted over because I spent over 300 hours in the Florida weather, including putting together the design, to produce this large mural. Also, on a scaffolding that is two stories high,” Dong said. “I am not upset over the fact that it got destroyed, but I am upset with the new administration for doing it and fabricating the lies they have been telling students and people. Lies such as notifying the art department and the artists, etc. Which they did not at all. I had to find out it was destroyed through art professors and Sarasota locals.”
This change is just one of several dramatic shifts in the school’s appearance and culture. The situation revolving the murals caused controversy around the school’s community for its war on culture.
Amy Reid, a member of the college’s Board of Trustees, revealed that 40% of faculty members had resigned since the new DeSantis-appointed school board had taken over. The campus was grappling with a wave of faculty departures, leaving students and parents concerned about the academic stability and quality of the institution.
“I’ve been fighting for the students asking for advice, and I’ve been working to hold this place together,” Reid said. “But the students were being driven away, they still are. Everyone we are trying to save this place for, I thought, ‘I don’t know what we’re still fighting for.’”
In August, DeSantis lauded these efforts, praising the board for its mission to “eliminate indoctrination and re-focus higher education on its classical mission.” However, his comments were met with criticism from students and parents, with disappointed faculty and students departing in significant numbers.
The following months became a turning point as Dong began sharing her involvement with the murals through news outlets. Her story added to the ongoing debate surrounding the changes at NCF, shedding light on the broader impact of these controversial decisions on the college’s community.
Other students involved in the creation of the murals declined to comment on this story.
The New College of Florida’s journey through 2023 was marked by political shifts, artistic expressions, controversy, and challenges. As the year unfolded, it raised important questions about the future direction of higher education institutions and the balance between academic freedom and ideological changes.
Amid a troubling year at the NCF, Dong was given an inspiring opportunity. As an art instructor at the Boys & Girls Club of Manatee County, she was granted a unique opportunity to share her artistic talents with the broader community.
Recognizing the value of Annie’s artistic talent, the Boys & Girls Club of Manatee County invited her to adorn their art room with her creative prowess.
“My heart sank when I first heard the news about Annie’s artwork being hidden away,” said Dawn Stanhope, president of the Boys & Girls Club of Manatee County. “Her gift is nothing short of extraordinary, and the thought of it being silenced, along with the talents of other artists, is a deeply saddening experience that none of them should ever have had to endure.”
Dong infused the room with her signature inspiration, diversity, and inclusivity. Dong’s story displays art’s power to inspire, even in challenging times. As the New College of Florida faced a transformative year, Dong’s mural continues to uplift all who visit the Boys & Girls Club of Manatee County, highlighting art’s enduring impact on our lives and communities.
“The people at the Club keep me going and remind me of the power art can do for any child and human being,” said Dong. “Also, what all the murals can represent is up to the viewer to interpret the mural, that is also the beauty of art, letting the public interpret your art.”