THE PEOPLE, 2023, Light projection, Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Washington, DC, Text: “For Rajaji” by Mohandas Gandhi, from Harijan, May 31, 1942. © 2023 Jenny Holzer, member Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Photo: Filip Wolak
Asked to speak about the content of her new work, Holzer offered a text that captures the spirit of the projections, a quotation from early civil rights and women’s suffrage activist Mary Church Terrell in 1897: “IN UNION THERE IS STRENGTH IS A TRUISM THAT HAS BEEN ACTED UPON.”
The projection launch is open to the public free of charge on the National Mall near the National Museum of American History starting at 6:30 p.m. Sunday night with a concert by “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band and opening remarks from Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro.
The projection comes in advance of a Tuesday, September 19, Democracy Day at the National Museum of American History. Produced by the University of Virginia’s Karsh Institute of Democracy with Art in Embassies and the museum, the day will feature artist panels, performances, and dialogues. Among the artists participating are Sanford Biggers, Deborah Kass, Kal Penn, Alexis Rockman, Hank Willis Thomas, Deborah Willis, Ambassador Chantale Wong, and Alfre Woodard. Museum visitors may also engage with objects from the National Museum of American History’s collections and participate in conversations about U.S. civic life. That evening, with the support of a bipartisan congressional committee that includes Congressmen Michael McCaul and Greg Meeks, Art in Embassies holds its 60th anniversary dinner program with private artist tours of the traveling exhibition, “A More Perfect Union: American Artists and the Currents of Our Time.” The exhibition will be open to the public through October 1.
“Strengthening our democracy is crucial, and as the home to an extensive political history collection and the seminal “American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith” exhibition, we are pleased to provide a canvas for this special commission by Jenny Holzer illuminating democracy’s power and fragility,” said Anthea M. Hartig, the Elizabeth McMillan Director of the National Museum of American History. “It is a true honor to be the only domestic venue for the stunning and evocative exhibition that will open on the second floor of the museum and partner with the Art in Embassies team and the Karsh Institute.”
“Art helps us reflect on our democratic culture and norms and encourages us to achieve our shared aspirational goals,” said Melody Barnes, director of the Karsh Institute of Democracy at the University of Virginia. “We are thrilled to work with artists and other cultural leaders to begin a conversation animated by this groundbreaking exhibition.”
Art in Embassies’ traveling exhibition and democracy programming opened at the Acropolis Museum in May; First Lady Dr. Jill Biden opened ceremonies at the next stop in Lisbon; and in Geneva, the exhibition coincided with the opening of the United Nations Human Rights Council summer session. At each stop, U.S. embassies hosted artist-driven symposiums, events, and dialogues on democracy. At the same time, Art in Embassies’ Democracy Collection initiative sent scores of artists to every hemisphere to advance ideals of democracy with U.S. embassies and hosted a student art contest with the National Art Education Association on the themes of democracy.
For more than 40 years, Jenny Holzer has presented her astringent ideas, arguments, joys, and sorrows in public places and international exhibitions, including the Venice Biennale, the Guggenheim Museums in New York and Bilbao, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Her medium, whether a T-shirt, plaque, or LED sign, is writing, and the public dimension is integral to her work. Starting in the 1970s with New York City street posters and continuing through her recent light projections on landscape and architecture, her practice has rivaled ignorance and violence with humor, kindness, and courage. Holzer received the Leone d’Oro at the Venice Biennale in 1990, the World Economic Forum’s Crystal Award in 1996, and the State Department’s Medal of Arts in 2017. She holds honorary degrees from Williams College, the Rhode Island School of Design, the New School, and Smith College. She lives and works in New York.
Like most of Holzer’s work, THE PEOPLE sparks conversations and engagement. “As one traverses the National Mall engaging with the work, one can’t help but think about the historic location and of the many millions of individuals who have used this common space to exercise their democratic rights,” said independent curator Nora Halpern, who organized this project on behalf of Art in Embassies.
Jenny Holzer’s THE PEOPLE is made possible by the Ford Foundation. The Democracy Collection initiative is made possible by the Ford Foundation, The Boeing Company, and the Doris Duke Foundation, as well as United Airlines; Microsoft; AT&T; Ann Hand; Atelier4; Salamander Hotels and Resorts; the Creative Growth Art Center; David Bruce Smith, The Grateful American Foundation; and scores of individual philanthropists and collectors who have donated time, funds, and artworks to this effort.
The U.S. Department of State established the Office of Art in Embassies in 1963 during the administration of President John F. Kennedy, adapting a program that started ten years earlier at the Museum of Modern Art. The exhibitions and collections created by the office play a vital role in our nation’s public diplomacy. The works are carefully selected to reflect the pride and innovation of the United States’ cultural sector, represent museums and cultural institutions in the United States, and establish cross-cultural connections in the regions and states in which they are displayed. Art in Embassies curates permanent and temporary exhibitions for over 200 U.S. embassies and official residences across the globe.
Through incomparable collections, rigorous research, and dynamic public outreach, the National Museum of American History seeks to empower people to create a more just and compassionate future by examining, preserving, and sharing the complexity of our past. The museum, located on Constitution Avenue N.W., between 12th and 14th streets, is open daily except December 25 between 10 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Admission is free. The doors of the museum are always open online, and the virtual museum continues to expand its offerings, including online exhibitions, K–12 educational materials, and programs. The public can follow the museum on social media on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. For more information, go to https://americanhistory.si.edu. For Smithsonian information, the public may call (202) 633-1000.
The University of Virginia’s Karsh Institute of Democracy is dedicated to a future in which democracy’s aspirations and reality are aligned. We work tirelessly to understand, defend, and invigorate the institutions, practices, and cultural underpinnings that are the foundations of democracy. Through robust interdisciplinary scholarship, research and teaching, and vibrant programs and partnerships designed to engage the public and influence policy agendas, we are shaping a thriving democratic future.
Megan Beyer, Director, Art in Embassies