‘It was opportunistic in the best sense’: how the US constitution inspired an exhibition

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The Guardian

They were eight tense minutes that Austen Barron Bailly will not forget in a hurry.

The scene: Sotheby’s auction room in New York. The bidders: Ken Griffin, a billionaire hedge fund manager, versus a group of 17,000 cryptocurrency enthusiasts from around the world. The prize: a rare first printing of the US constitution.

“It was a nail biter because it was so clearly between these two bidders on the phone,” recalls Bailly, who witnessed the auction last November. “The back and forth and back and forth, and thinking about what it would mean for the US constitution to be owned by a private individual or by this crypto collective, was a pretty interesting, anticipatory eight minutes. Auction is its own form of theatre.”

Griffin, an art collector and founder of Chicago-based hedge fund Citadel, prevailed with a bid of $43.2m, a record price for a document or book sold at auction. Sotheby’s immediately announced that he would lend the constitution to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, for public display.

The museum, which was founded by Walmart heiress Alice Walton, has about 4,000 works in its collection and is free to the public, made the constitution the centerpiece of an exhibition, We the People: The Radical Notion of Democracy, which opened earlier this month and runs until 2 January.

The Official First Edition of the Constitution, 1787, ink on paper Photograph: Ardon Bar-Hama/Ken Griffin

Bailly, who is the museum’s chief curator, says: “The origins of this exhibition were very spontaneous. There was no intention to do an exhibition on the US constitution.

“It was truly a response to the moment of the idea that this rare version of an original official edition was to have a new owner and there could be an opportunity to pair the document with works of art in a region of the country that has not seen that before. It was opportunistic in the best sense.”

The show could be said to bridge the gap between history and art, between the dead white men of Mount Rushmore and the vibrant community of artists who critiqued America’s imperfect union since the beginning. The rare print of the constitution – one of just 11 known in the world, the museum says – is placed in dialogue with works that shine a different light on the nation’s founding.

Among the highlights, organised by Native American art curator Polly Nordstrand, are historical paintings such as John Lee Douglas Mathies’s depiction of Seneca leader Red Jacket and John Trumbull’s portrait of Alexander Hamilton.

Original prints of other founding documents, including the declaration of independence, articles of confederation and proposed bill of rights and emancipation proclamation, are juxtaposed with works by artists such as Shelley Niro, Roger Shimomura, Luis C Garza and Jacob Lawrence.

Bailly explains: “That gathering of founding documents is truly unprecedented and then we have the opportunity through our collection and special loans to put those words, principles and foundations in conversation with the visual iconography of democracy, portraits of Native leaders, portraits of founding fathers, 20th century works of artists who are documenting and interpreting histories or imagining new futures.

“It’s a diverse array of style, media, approach and perspectives and that’s really exciting. People can come to this show and see for themselves these fundamentals, both artistic and political.”

Painting by Jacob Lawrence – … Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? – Patrick Henry, 1775, 1955 Photograph: Bob Packert/Collection of Harvey and Harvey-Ann Ross

The show – complemented by educational and public programming including panels, workshops, student tours and teacher resources – arrives at a moment when history, like seemingly everything else in America, seems to divide more than it unites.

The New York Times’s 1619 Project reexamined the legacy of slavery, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton cast actors of colour as the founding fathers and the police murder of George Floyd prompted the removal of numerous Confederate statues.

There has been a predictable rightwing backlash. Go to the website of the 1776 Project political action committee (PAC) and you are greeted with an invitation to “Report a School Promoting Critical Race Theory.” The PAC claims it is “promoting patriotism and pride in American history” as opposed to Marxist social engineering.

Bailly says: “We don’t shy away from the complicated history and we seek to be very direct in providing fact and truth and those multiple perspectives. We have important works by artists of all backgrounds in the exhibition. We look, too, at the ways in which the cycles of American history and the struggles to form that more perfect union are a persistent part of our nature as a nation.

“To me, one of the truest signs of patriotism is to care so much about your country, its principles, its documents, its fundamentals that you’re willing to criticize them to make sure that they work. There are always different ways to tell a story. What’s important is that there can be different biases or emphases within a story, but trying to strike some sort of balance is very critical for us.”

Even the founding documents themselves, while sacred to many, are hardly beyond reproach. The declaration of independence’s resounding phrase, “all men are created equal”, does not mention women. The constitution’s “three-fifths clause” allowed enslaved people to be counted as three-fifths of free citizens.

The chief curator adds: “What we find extraordinary is the recognition from the moment of the writing of the constitution that it was an imperfect document. We as a nation and artists and even founders of the constitution themselves embrace or acknowledge and work through those imperfections – thus the amendments, thus the bill of rights, thus the constant search for equality and justice.

“These documents are the pillars and the cornerstones, flaws and all, of what guides us and we can constantly return to them. It’s those principles and the ostensible protection from the abuses of power that we the people have a responsibility to uphold, defend and fight for when they are not not upheld.”

Shelley Niro – Treaties, 2008, printed 2022 (from the series Borders) Photograph: Crystal Bridges

Surely one of the most important aspects of such an exhibition is its location. Donald Trump beat Joe Biden by more than 27 percentage points in Arkansas in the 2020 presidential election. Trump’s former White House spokeswoman, Sarah Sanders, is poised to become the state’s governor.

Arkansas is bordered by red states Missouri, Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas and Oklahoma. And in Bentonville, where Walmart was born and has its headquarters, a Confederate monument stood for more than a century until its removal in 2020. All in all, it does not seem the most fertile ground for a museum show interrogating the heroic version of the American story.

But Bailly comments: “What we want to do is present contextually the conditions for the creation of these documents: the people, the places. We want to create a human-centric approach so that anybody coming in, no matter what his or her views are, will find some point of connection and may find connections that they haven’t thought about before.

“We don’t dare to try to indoctrinate or direct or say, ‘You need to think like this.’ But we want to provide historical and artistic evidence that can allow people to inform their own thinking and ideas and perspectives. If they change, they change, if they don’t, they don’t. But we want to create that space for discovery, creativity, engagement.”

July 18, 2022 at 11:12AM David Smith Washington bureau chief

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