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

Press Release

Democracy Day at the Smithsonian: Art and Democracy in American History

Hank Willis Thomas, Kal Penn, Deborah Kass, Sanford Biggers, and Alfre Woodard are just a few of the artists participating in “Democracy Day,” a collaboration between the U.S. Department of State’s Office of Art in Embassies, the University of Virginia’s Karsh Institute of Democracy, and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History on September 19. The three entities are teaming up with these artists and more to explore the themes of democracy with a special exhibition, artist talks, and panel discussions in celebration of Art in Embassies’ 60th anniversary.

“For the last 60 years, Art in Embassies has put America’s greatest strength in the hands of the people representing us all over the world,” said Megan Beyer, Director of Art in Embassies. “Artists survive on freedom and are uniquely effective for the diplomatic imperative to strengthen democracy and unite the free world.”

“This year, the Office of Art in Embassies has organized scores of art diplomacy events for our embassies overseas,” said Ambassador Will Moser, Director of the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations. “I know from having served in Kazakhstan and Moldova that events with U.S. artists provide a creative forum to engage in important discussions about democracy with audiences around the world,” he said.

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Democracy Day begins with the opening of Art in Embassies’ traveling exhibition, “A More Perfect Union: American Artists and the Currents of Our Time,” at the National Museum of American History at 10:00 a.m. in 2 East. The artists in the exhibition reflect diverse perspectives and voices and serve as a reminder that artists are central to democracy’s evolution. Addressing issues of equality, freedom, and justice, the exhibition inspired conversations and connections on an extensive tour this year. Press is invited to the gallery space at 12:00 p.m. to talk with exhibition artists and curators of the work.

The traveling exhibition made stops in Greece, Portugal, and Switzerland. It opened at the Acropolis Museum in May with a Partners in Democracy Symposium hosted by U.S. Ambassador George Tsunis; First Lady Dr. Jill Biden attended ceremonies in Lisbon during a weeklong series of artist panels hosted by U.S. Ambassador Randi Charno Levine; and in Geneva, the exhibition coincided with the opening of the United Nations Human Rights Council summer session where Human Rights Council Ambassador Michèle Taylor hosted a dialogue with Joan Baez.

Rarely seen democracy-related artifacts from the museum’s national collection will be on view near the gallery for an enhanced visitor experience from 10:30 a.m. – 11:45 a.m. and 12:45 p.m. – 2:00 p.m. As well, “American Experiments,” a set of activities designed to playfully engage the public in conversation about U.S. civic life will be held in the museum’s Unity Square in 2 West from 10:30 a.m. – 11:30 a.m.

“Democracy Day: Art and Democracy in American History” will be an afternoon of programming on September 19 featuring exhibition tours by artists, panel discussions in the museum’s Warner Bros. Theater with artists and scholars about the relationship between art and democracy in the United States, and the museum’s “American Experiments” will continue in Unity Square in 2 West from 1:30 p.m. – 2:30 p.m. The conversations over the course of the day will explore different ways that art informs and shapes democracy and democratic culture by helping audiences engage with one another, with shared values and principles, and with the world. Please use the provided links to register to attend.

The National Museum of American History presents the first panel, “Revolutionary Questions at 250,” from 1:00 – 2:00 p.m. It will examine how the United States has inspired the world with ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence and how those ideals have spurred change, resistance, new definitions, and shifting directions across 250 years. Panelists will reflect on the Declaration as a living document—its past, present, and future.

“Strengthening our democracy is crucial, and as the home of history of all Americans, the keepers of an extensive political history collection and the seminal “American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith” exhibition, we are pleased to host this special exhibition and the related public programming and building projection exploring democracy’s power and fragility,” said Anthea M. Hartig, the Elizabeth MacMillan 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.”

Following the museum’s panel, Art in Embassies presents “Artist Advocates for Democracy”— two ambassador-led discussions with artists who participated in Art in Embassies’ cultural programming for democracy this year. The first artist talk, “Art Diplomacy for Equality,” will be led by Ambassador Randi Charno Levine in conversation with Sanford Biggers, Deborah Kass, Hank Willis Thomas, and Deborah Willis. The second artist talk, “Arts and Human Rights” will center around art advocacy with a conversation between Permanent Representative to the United Nations Human Rights Council Ambassador Michèle Taylor, Ambassador Chantale Wong, and artist Alexis Rockman. These discussions will happen in the Warner Bros. Theater from 2:00 – 3:00 p.m.

Following the artist talks, the University of Virginia’s Karsh Institute of Democracy will host a panel conversation on the power of art and storytelling as tools to strengthen democratic culture in the Warner Bros. Theater from 3:00 – 4:00 p.m. The event, “Storytelling and Connection,” will feature actor Alfre Woodard, artist Hank Willis Thomas, independent filmmaker Paul Wagner, and Karsh Institute Executive Director Melody Barnes.

“Art helps us reflect on our democratic culture and norms, and encourages us to achieve our shared aspirational goals,” said Barnes. “We are thrilled to work with artists and other cultural leaders to begin a conversation animated by this groundbreaking exhibition.”

Democracy Day is a part of Art in Embassies’ Democracy Collection initiative, putting artists central to the defense of democracy. The initiative includes scores of artist visits at U.S. embassies in every hemisphere to advance ideals of democracy, a democracy-themed art contest for middle- and high-school students with the National Art Education Association, and a commissioned projection work from renowned artist and State Department Medal of Arts honoree Jenny Holzer.

Launched on September 17, Holzer’s new light projection THE PEOPLE continues nightly through September 21 on the façades of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. The artwork will light the National Mall with quotations spanning history that extoll the beauty of democracy.

The opening day at the museum concludes with an artist-filled 60th anniversary celebration dinner for invited guests with the support of national cultural leaders, corporations, and a bipartisan congressional committee co-chaired by Representatives Michael McCaul and Gregory Meeks.

“A More Perfect Union: American Artists and the Currents of Our Time,” curated by Art in Embassies Chief Curator Camille Benton, President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities member Nora Halpern, and former Art in Embassies Director Ellen Susman, includes works by some of the most respected contemporary artists in the United States. Exhibition works focus on issues of equality, freedom, justice, and other founding principles of the country. Among the artists are Tanya Aguiñiga, Doug Aitken, Paula Crown, Jenny Holzer, Wyatt Gallery, Jeffrey Gibson, Jay Lynn Gomez, Eric Gottesman, Tomashi Jackson, Titus Kaphar, Christine Sun Kim, Glenn Ligon, Bruce Nauman, Yoko Ono, Alexis Rockman, Edward Ruscha, Will Ryman, Emily Shur, Xavier Tavera, Hank Willis Thomas, Marie Watt, Carrie Mae Weems, Susan Weil, Lawrence Weiner, Ambassador Chantale Wong, Michelle Woo, and Yu-Wen Wu. The exhibition will be open to the public through October 1.

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; Atelier 4; 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, adapting a program 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 America’s cultural sector and to make 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 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.

To register for the panels, use these links:

Revolutionary Questions at 250, 1:00pm-2:00pm:

Artist Advocates for Democracy, 2:00pm-3:00pm:

Storytelling and Connection, 3:00pm-4:00pm:

Press Contact:

Megan Beyer, Director, Art in Embassies