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The Contemporary's New Exhibit Explores What It Means To Be A Citizen

We the People
The Contemporary / Facebook
Nari Ward's "We the People" at The Contemporary in downtown Dayton.

If you look in the front window of The Contemporary on Jefferson Street in downtown Dayton, you’ll see “We The People'' written on the wall. The words are huge—roughly a story high and almost fifty feet wide. They’re in a calligraphy style, like the U.S. Constitution, but they’re not written in ink or paint. Instead, the words are formed out of thousands of strategically placed shoelaces. The exhibit is part of the gallery’s push to get more people registered to vote.

The Contemporary's new curator, Michael Goodson, talked with WYSO’s Jason Reynolds...

J. REYNOLDS: Can you tell us a little bit about the current show at The Contemporary, which seems kind of timely in an election year. It’s called “We the People.”

MICHAEL GOODSON: It is. It’s by an artist named Nari Ward. It’s always really interesting for me how Nari works because he will take the lowest, most quotidian of things, the lowly shoelace, and conflate it with something as aspirational as the beginning of the Preamble of the Constitution. I think initially when he made the work at the Fabric Workshop in Philadelphia it was, among other things, a meditation on the idea of immigration and naturalization. Nari’s family immigrated from Jamaica to New York.

I think, though, it has kind of evolved into a work of art that ruminates on what it means to be a citizen—and in our reckoning, what it is in this moment to be a citizen and vote in what is probably the most important and timely election of our lifetime. In keeping with that, we are collaborating with The League of Women Voters of Greater Dayton and actually have a voter registration center set up in the gallery and have been registering people to vote.

Watch Michael Goodson and his team at The Contemporary hang thousands of shoelaces to install Nari Ward's "We the People."

J. REYNOLDS: Tell me a little bit about that partnership with the League of Women Voters and how many Daytonians you’ve been able to register.

MICHAEL GOODSON: I think at this point, we’re actually walking them over daily and just trying to make sure that all the paperwork is filed and everyone knows exactly what precinct to vote at or exactly how to get a mail-in ballot. So, as of yesterday, I think we are at 40 or 50 people, and we will continue to register people through the first week of October, which is the cut off date. I think it’s October 5th. If we can register 100 or 150 people, we would be absolutely thrilled.

We’re trying to reach out to all communities in Dayton and the surrounding area. Anyone who is mildly interested and has any interest in voting and has not, we make it as easy as possible.

J. REYNOLDS: This will be The Contemporary’s last show in its current home. You’ll be moving to the new, renovated Arcade in downtown Dayton. Can you tell us a little bit about the new location, the timeline, and what gallery-goers should expect?

MICHAEL GOODSON: Well, the idea is to open it to the public on December 31st—on New Year’s Eve. The entire Arcade will not be open at that point, but we will be open and the rotunda will be open, and a couple other things will be open. So, people can get a sneak peak of it. The logistics of that, in terms of social distancing, I think there will be a plan in place for how to do that. We will certainly be measuring the amount of people that we’re letting into the gallery, providing masks and hand sanitizer, and keeping it as safe as possible. But the idea is to open on December 31. So, as we turn the new year, we open this new space.

The Arcade in Downtown Dayton
Jason Reynolds
The Contemporary plans to open its new home in the Dayton Arcade on December 31, 2020.

J. REYNOLDS: What’s 2021 hold for The Contemporary? I know you want to engage and involve the public in art more in your new home in the Arcade. How will The Contemporary go about doing that?

MICHAEL GOODSON: We’ve just finished an equity statement that we’d really like to have work as a template for a lot of the programming that we’re thinking about, which is to say we want to have our programming reflect a kind of diversity. Certainly, women—women have been under shown in institutions like this until very recently. Artists of color certainly. But really, we want people who are also making work that speaks to issues, and we want it to be an experience for people who come out to see contemporary art in Dayton.

It’s important to me that there be a kind of theatre that surrounds these shows, so people have a distinctive experience when they come to see this work and are not just preached to. We want it to be beautiful. We want it to be visually edifying, and edifying to the mind as well.

The Contemporary will be hosting a virtual interview with artist Nari Ward and curator Michael Goodson on Friday, October 2.