Sep 15, 2023 - News

Jenny Holzer National Mall projection shows off Art in Embassies program

A light projection at night on the trees that line the banks of the Potomac River, that says "This is no fantasy It will be achieved by concrete steps."

Jenny Holzer's 2007 light projection on the Potomac. Photo courtesy of Attilio Maranzano

Famed artist Jenny Holzer will light up the National Mall starting Sunday with a massive projection that explores the beauty of democracy throughout the ages.

Why it matters: Holzer is part of 60th-anniversary celebrations for Art in Embassies (AIE), a State Department-run program that uses art to wield soft power worldwide.

What's happening: Holzer's "The People" light projection launches at 6:30pm on the façades of the National Museum of American History, Hirshhorn, and Sculpture Garden — all to the tune of music from "The President's Own" U.S. Marine Band.

  • The projection, composed of thought-provoking quotes, will run from dusk to 11pm through Sept. 21 (all free and open to the public).
  • Next Tuesday, AIE's traveling Democracy Collection stops at the American History Museum with performances and artist panels featuring Hank Willis Thomas, Kal Penn, and Alexis Rockman, among others. The public can register for free artist talks on storytelling and advocacy.
A silver star-shaped artwork hangs on a teal blue wall in a gallery.
Doug Aitken, STAR (broken). Part of AIE's traveling exhibition. Photo courtesy of Amanda Brooks

Catch up quick: First envisioned by the Museum of Modern Art, Art in Embassies was formalized by President Kennedy in 1963 at the height of the Cold War to promote cross-cultural dialogue and subtly represent American values abroad.

  • Today, AIE works with about 2,000 artists a year — plus many more museums, galleries, and cultural centers – to create exhibitions in more than 200 embassies, consulates, and ambassadorial residences in 190 countries worldwide.

How it works: Every newly appointed ambassador has the opportunity to meet with the visual arts office within the State Department to develop ideas and curate exhibitions for their residence — always in "representational spaces" for meetings and entertainment, never private enjoyment.

  • More than 80% of the art, whether it's from renowned names like Georgia O'Keefe or up-and-coming talents, is loaned to the program for an ambassador's term, typically three to four years (that's long for the art world).

What they're saying: "We take into consideration the local customs and mores and culture," curator Camille Benton tells Axios.

  • "Democracy has been a big theme of this year, but our goal is cultural diplomacy and drawing connections between our culture and that of the host country. The art is there to speak for itself — and it speaks volumes."

Between the lines: Director Megan Beyer tells Axios that AIE is "like the busiest museum in America. There's no other museum that's doing 60 exhibitions every year worldwide with a staff under 20."

  • Plus, they deal with more international conflict than your average gallerists. When Kabul fell to the Taliban, for example, the State Department safely and quietly shipped embassy art home.

Zoom in: Beyer, whose husband is Virginia Rep. Don Beyer, a former ambassador to Switzerland and Liechtenstein in the Obama administration, said they purposely chose landscapes and seascapes for their residence during a time when the Swiss were unhappy about America's environmental policies.

  • "It was just a subtle way to be able to turn the page without telegraphing a family fight but let people know this is what you'll hear at the embassy now."

The bottom line: "Art can make you feel what a diplomat can only try and make you understand," Beyer has said. "There's no better ambassador for freedom than an artist because an artist survives on freedom."


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