Crystal Bridges Explores the U.S. Constitution Through Art in New Exhibition 'We the People: The Radical Notion of Democracy'

  • July 07, 2022 09:57

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Jacob Lawrence,. . . is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?—Patrick Henry,1775 , Panel 1, 1955, from Struggle: From the History of the American People, 1954–56, egg tempera on hardboard. Collection of Harvey and Harvey-Ann Ross. © 2022 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Gilbert Stuart, George Washington [The Constable-Hamilton Portrait], 1797, oil on canvas, 59 x46 3/4 x 4 1/2 in. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas, 2005.27. Photography by Edward C. Robison III.

Original print of the U.S. Constitution headlines exhibition sponsored by Ken Griffin (who purchased it for $43.2 million at Sotheby's in 2021) that combines art and history to broaden the American narrative

A document at the very heart of U.S. democracy was unveiled in an art exhibition this summer. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art opened We the People: The Radical Notion of Democracy, placing a rare, original print of the U.S. Constitution — there are just eleven known in the world — in conversation with works of art that provide diverse perspectives on the nation’s founding principles. Original prints of other founding documents, including the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the proposed Bill of Rights, are displayed alongside works by influential historical and contemporary artists, including several new acquisitions, in the museum’s first exhibition organized by Polly Nordstrand, Crystal Bridges’ curator of Native American art. We the People: The Radical Notion of Democracy will be on view from July 2, 2022 to January 2, 2023.

The exhibition gives visitors the opportunity, through art, to explore the significance of the world's longest-surviving written charter of government and reflect on the relevance of the U.S. Constitution in the lives of Americans today. The interplay of artworks spanning three centuries with the nation’s persevering documents acknowledges the long-contested space of rights, justice, and freedom and the important role of artistic expression in the related discourse throughout American history.

“Art has long been a powerful platform for uplifting the inherent ideals of the U.S. Constitution,” says Nordstrand. “We hope visitors see how artists have creatively engaged in the dialogue to demonstrate our rights and the greater aspirations of our nation to seek equality and justice for all.”

The museum’s first curator of Native American art, Nordstrand is leading efforts to build relationships with Native nations, develop the early, modern and contemporary Native American art collection at Crystal Bridges, and provide vision for the museum’s Native art program.

Shelly Niro, Treaties, 2008, printed 2022, inkjet print, 24 x 54 1/8 in. Courtesy of the artist.
John Dunlap and David Claypool, The Official First Edition of the Constitution, 1787, ink on paper, 16 1/8 x 10 1/8 in. Private Collection. Photography courtesy of Sotheby’s, Inc.

Highlighted works in the exhibition include historical paintings such as John Lee Douglas Mathies’s depiction of Seneca leader Red Jacket and John Trumbull’s portrait of Alexander Hamilton, as well as twentieth- and twenty-first century works by Mark Bradford, Elizabeth Catlett, Jacob Lawrence, Shelley Niro, Roger Shimomura, and others exploring constitutional themes of equality, freedom and justice.

“This is a rare, must-see opportunity to experience such an inspiring and thought-provoking exhibition that speaks to Crystal Bridges’ mission to celebrate the American spirit through powerful art,” says museum executive director and chief diversity and inclusion officer, Rod Bigelow. “The strength of our collection has allowed us to put forward a dynamic and inclusive exhibition that helps us see the ideals of the Constitution anew and envision ways to aspire to them.”

John Trumbull, Portrait of Alexander Hamilton, 1792, oil on canvas, 102 x 73 x 5 1/2 in. Jointly Owned by Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Credit Suisse, 2013.4. Photography by Edward C. Robison III.

The original print of the Constitution heads to Crystal Bridges following its purchase late last year by Citadel founder and CEO Ken Griffin, who acquired the historic document with the intention of making it accessible to the public. The sale caught the attention of Crystal Bridges Board Chair Olivia Walton, who suggested partnering with Mr. Griffin to bring the document to Crystal Bridges first, where it will be on display free of charge.

“I am thrilled to partner with Crystal Bridges to share the founding document of our democracy with visitors from across the country and abroad,” said Griffin. “People of all ages will have the opportunity to explore our Constitution, which ushered in the world’s most radical experiment in representative government at the time. I hope the experience will be enriching and thought-provoking for all who visit.”

The museum is planning a full suite of educational and public programming to complement the exhibition, including panels, workshops, student tours, teacher resources and programs co-developed with some of the nation's leading civic education organizations, including the National Constitution Center, Bill of Rights Institute, and iCivics, and museum-wide activities to coincide with Constitution Day on Saturday, September 17. A virtual exhibition tour, interactive content and other digital resources will be available on the museum’s website for visitors world-wide to explore and experience the exhibition remotely. More details will be shared at

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