A rare original copy of the United States Constitution—about a dozen copies are known to exist—is now on display at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas. The document is on loan from Ken Griffin, founder of the hedge fund Citadel, who bid a record-breaking $43 million for it at auction last year, reports the Guardian’s David Smith.
The price aside, the auction made headlines at the time because of the group Griffin was bidding against: ConstitutionDAO, a collective of 17,000 cryptocurrency fans, who quickly raised more than $40 million. But Griffin ultimately prevailed; immediately after the auction, Sotheby’s announced that the document would go on display at Crystal Bridges.
Austen Bailly, the museum’s chief curator, remembers watching the tense bidding war play out.
“It was a nail biter because it was so clearly between these two bidders on the phone,” she tells the Guardian. “The back and forth and back and forth, and thinking about what it would mean for the U.S. constitution to be owned by a private individual or by this crypto collective, was a pretty interesting, anticipatory eight minutes.”
The new free exhibition, “We the People: The Radical Notion of Democracy,” is designed around this rare copy of the Constitution. It also features original prints of other founding documents, including the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, the proposed Bill of Rights and the Emancipation Proclamation, as well as a collection of artworks spanning 300 years that “provide diverse perspectives on the nation’s founding principles,” per a statement from the museum.
The pieces of art on display are meant to contrast each other in thought-provoking ways. For example, portraits of Native American leaders (like John Lee Douglas Mathies’ rendering of Seneca leader Red Jacket) are featured along with those of famous American leaders (like John Trumbull’s painting of Alexander Hamilton). The Federalist Papers are located below the portrait of Hamilton, one of the authors, per the Joplin Globe’s Kevin McClintock. Other pieces include paintings by civil rights artist Jacob Lawrence and prints from Shelley Niro’s series about America’s founding.
Bailly tells the Guardian that the exhibition doesn’t “shy away” from “complicated history,” instead aiming to provide accurate information from multiple perspectives.
“We have important works by artists of all backgrounds in the exhibition,” she adds. “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.”
Polly Nordstrand, a Native American art curator and the exhibition’s organizer, hopes that visitors will contemplate artists’ role in edifying the values in the nation’s founding document.
“Art has long been a powerful platform for uplifting the inherent ideals of the U.S. Constitution,” Nordstrand tells ARTFIXdaily. “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.”
“We the People: The Radical Notion of Democracy” is on view at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas through January 2, 2023.
Editor’s Note, July 28, 2022: This story has been edited to identify Austen Bailly using she/her pronouns.