The Big Idea

We the People: Protest and Patriotism
Big Idea
The Big Idea

We the People

Protest and Patriotism

September 28 - December 14, 2018

As citizens in a representative democracy, Americans rely on elected officials to make legislation and policy—to act in the United States’ best interests domestically and internationally. But from the time of its founding, the U.S. has also been a nation that embraces the idea of participatory democracy. Our country functions because it allows (and depends upon) the participation of its citizens. Those seeking to participate in the democratic process can take a wide range of actions, from voting in elections to running for office, showing up for city council meetings, or organizing and joining public marches and rallies. In fact, public acts of protest have shaped America’s history since the moment in December 1773 when colonists gathered in Boston Harbor to reject a shipment of tea from the East India Company in protest of their lack of representation in British Parliament. Public protests have punctuated America’s history, bringing people together to speak out against slavery or the Vietnam War, and in favor of voting rights for women, expanded protections for workers, or civil rights for African-Americans, members of the LGBTQ community and many others. Organizing publicly gives citizens with a shared set of beliefs the chance to speak with a unified voice about their vision for the country and the opportunity to effect social and political change. While marches and rallies may be among the most visible ways that Americans participate in their democracy, citizens also take quieter measures—exercising their right to vote, for example. Volunteering on a campaign. or running for office in order to be part of the process of governing, which begins at the grassroots level. American democracy has never been neat and tidy; instead, it is complicated and sometimes messy. However, democracy is enriched and ensured by its citizens’ participation, whatever form that might take. And every act of participation, whether flying a flag or voting in elections, running for office or marching in the streets, is also an act of patriotism that affirms and celebrates our shared belief that as citizens, we have the right and the duty to help shape our nation’s government.

The BIG IDEA project We the People: Protest and Patriotism is generously supported by Jeri L. Wolfson.

View Exhibition Photo Gallery


The exhibition features works that illuminate the many ways American citizens participate in our democracy. Historical pamphlets and books from the collection of the Wolfsonian Museum related to demonstrations for workers’ rights and women’s suffrage illustrate the long history of citizens organizing for political change. Materials from the collection of Wendy and Alan Pesky made in connection with marches in New York in support of Soviet Jewry shed light on Americans’ promotion of democratic reforms abroad through public action at home.

Deborah Aschheim has made a series of drawings based on photographs and oral histories of protest marches in Southern California in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as drawings of participants at events throughout 2017. 

Kate Haug also revisits the protests of the 1960s in her project, News Today, a consideration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1968 Poor People’s Campaign. A print and embossed matchboxes that Haug made as part of the project ask viewers to consider the ways they engage in the democratic process today.

The photographs in Paul Shambroom’s project Meetings document democracy at its most local level—city council meetings in small towns around the United States. Shambroom’s photos illustrate the role that everyday citizens play in government.

The exhibition includes a selection of flags from Mel Ziegler’s ongoing project, Flag Ex-change, through which he has exchanged a new flag for an older, tattered flag, with at least one person in each of the 50 states, illuminating the powerful symbolism of the American flag across the political spectrum.

Two bodies of photographs reflect on moments of collective national mourning. Eugene Richards’ project Lincoln Funeral Train traces the path of Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train, which traveled more than 1600 miles from Washington, D.C., to Springfield, Illinois. Richards’ photographs ask viewers to think about how Lincoln’s legacy resonates today. Photographs Paul Fusco made while traveling with Robert F. Kennedy’s funeral train from New York City to Washington, D.C. depict the thousands of mourners who came out to pay their respects.

For Freedoms 50 State Initiative

As part of the BIG IDEA project, We the People, the Sun Valley Museum of Art is a 50 State Initiative partner of For Freedoms.

Since 2016, For Freedoms has produced special exhibitions, town hall meetings, billboards, and lawn sign installations to spur greater participation in civic life. This year, For Freedoms launched its 50 State Initiative, a new phase of programming to encourage broad participation and inspire conversation around November’s midterm elections. Building off of the existing artistic infrastructure in the United States, For Freedoms has developed a network of more than 300 artists and 200 institutional partners who will produce nation-wide public art installations, exhibitions and local community dialogues in order to inject nuanced, artistic thinking into public discourse. Centered around the vital work of artists, For Freedoms hopes that these exhibitions and related projects will model how arts institutions can become civic forums for action and discussion of values, place, and patriotism.

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