One of ‘THE PEOPLE’: Ryan’s Words Included in Democracy Celebration on National Mall

September 21, 2023 By Alice Berry, Alice Berry,

University of Virginia President Jim Ryan made his artistic debut on the National Mall in Washington this week.

Projected against the back of the National Museum of American History on Wednesday evening was an excerpt from Ryan’s July Fourth speech at Monticello’s annual naturalization ceremony. It was part of the artist Jenny Holzer’s text-based light projection on democracy called “THE PEOPLE.”

Holzer chose this passage from Ryan’s speech: “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.”

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On a clear, mild night, dogwalkers, runners and admirers of the National Mall paused before the museum to take in Ryan’s words.

“I think it’s amazing that you get to see this in the seat of democracy,” said Sangita Shaha, a 2009 Darden School of Business alumna and the UVA Club of D.C. vice president.

Ryan is the only sitting university president to be included in the display. His words, along with those of Plato, the late civil rights activist John Lewis, poet Emily Dickinson and dozens of others, were projected onto the facades of the National Museum of American History and the Hirshhorn Museum. Ryan’s quote was bracketed by words from Barbara Jordan, the first Black woman from a Southern state to serve in the House of Representatives, and Aeschines, an ancient Greek statesman.

Jim Ryan at Naturalization piece

University President Jim Ryan welcomed more than 50 new U.S. citizens at Monticello on July Fourth as the keynote speaker of the historic site’s 61st naturalization ceremony. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

“It’s a tremendous honor to be included in Jenny Holzer’s exhibit alongside so many visionaries and champions of democracy,” Ryan 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. 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.”

Holzer is an award-winning American conceptual artist whose work is on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, among other museums.

For Trevor Doiron, a double Hoo who earned his master’s degree in public policy, the display helps him feel closer to his alma mater while working in the city of his dreams.

“It’s really nice that we get to have that connection to him here,” Doiron, a member of the UVA Club of D.C., said

The projection is part of the State Department’s Art in Embassies program, which is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year with its Democracy Collection. UVA's Karsh Institute of Democracy is a key partner in the program.

“I reached out because of the reputation of the Karsh Institute of Democracy,” said Megan Beyer, director of the Art in Embassies program. She thought it would be a “great culmination” to a series of events the State Department had hosted to celebrate the program’s anniversary.

Another shot of a different part of the quote
Ryan is the only sitting university president to be included in “THE PEOPLE.” (Photo by Erin Edgerton, University Communications)

That anniversary fell on the same year as the 60th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s landmark March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which Beyer said only highlighted the need for a renewed commitment to democracy. Art is a powerful way to do that, Beyer said.

“Artists survive on freedom, so they’re the best ambassadors for freedom,” Beyer said.

Another UVA alumna found the display inspiring.

“It’s really poignant to hear that we can fix our wrongs,” Victoria Nguyen, president of the UVA Club of D.C., said. “I’m ecstatic that there’s a little piece of Jim Ryan up here in D.C. with us.”

Media Contact

Alice Berry

University News Associate Office of University Communications