In his five years as president of the University of Virginia, Jim Ryan has not been known for flashy displays.
His solemn keynote address at this year’s Fourth of July celebration at Monticello, where 50 immigrants from 28 countries were naturalized and Ryan recounted his own story as the child of an Irish immigrant, stirred many in the crowd — and even Ryan himself — to tears.
While Ryan may not be one for flashy displays, those words are. Last month, an excerpt from Ryan’s address at Monticello was included as part of a public art exhibit on Washington, D.C.’s National Mall.
Between Sept. 17 and 21, Ryan was included with a number of notable figures from across time and around the world whose words were project against the back of the National Museum of American History as part of artist Jenny Holzer’s “THE PEOPLE” project.
Holzer specifically chose a single passage from Ryan’s address:
“As long as we the people remain committed to forming a more perfect union, as long as we remain committed to the principles of democracy and the rule of law, as long as we remain committed to each other and engaged in the life of this country, there is reason for great optimism. There is nothing that we the people have done in our worst moments that cannot be fixed by what we the people can do at our best.”
The display, commissioned by the Department of State’s Office of Art in Embassies to mark its 60th anniversary, was curated by the artist herself, according to Megan Beyer, director of the office which promotes cultural diplomacy through exhibitions, permanent collections, site-specific commissions and two-way artist exchanges around the world. Holzer was on the hunt not just for iconic quotations but words that inspired viewers to think more deeply about commonly held beliefs in democracy.
“We were so glad that they chose him [Ryan] because he’s so eloquent,” Beyer told The Daily Progress. “Art can make you feel what an ambassador can only try to make you understand, and I think that his words were poetic and lyrical and appealed to Jenny.”
Ryan’s words joined those of UVa founder Thomas Jefferson, Founding Father George Washington, civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., investigative journalist Ida B. Wells and philosopher Plato lighting up the rear of the National Museum of American History. Ryan was the only sitting university president to be featured in the display.
The New York-based Holzer — whose work has been featured at the Venice Biennale, the Guggenheim Museums in New York and Bilbao, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Louvre Abu Dhabi — is known for her (literally) moving light projections on landscape and architecture.
Her work has won her numerous recognitions and honors, including the Department of State’s Medal of Arts in 2017, the Leone d’Oro at the Venice Biennale in 1990 and the World Economic Forum’s Crystal Award in 1996.
“While individual statements have the ring of truth, in combination they give rise to contradictions and ambiguities,” the D.C.-based Hirshhorn Museum said in a statement of the excerpts she chooses for her projects.
Holzer’s “THE PEOPLE” display depicts democracy as more than an idea, according to Beyer; it’s a feeling, an elemental human yearning, she said. It is that yearning that the State Department’s Office of Art in Embassies is trying to feed worldwide, she said.
“I think what we’re trying to do with this whole project is what every freedom movement has ever done, which is to connect humanity through art and accelerate democracy through art,” Beyer said.
“I was grateful for the chance to be part of the Independence Day celebrations and naturalization ceremony at Monticello, which were a moving reminder about the power and ideals of American democracy,” Ryan told The Daily Progress in a statement via email. “Holzer has perfectly captured that spirit with her latest project, and I hope it will inspire others to engage in civic life and advocate for a more just and peaceful world.”
Ryan isn’t the only UVa connection to Holzer’s “THE PEOPLE.”
The school’s Karsh Institute of Democracy, dedicated to the study and strengthening of democracy at UVa, was a “great partner,” Beyer said. The institute was critical in providing the research to contextualize the quotes used, Beyer said.
“We let our artist have people feel and then we had the Karsh Institute there with the academic and policy rigor to give it all context,” she said. “It was really a beautiful collaboration.”