Art and government make prickly bedfellows. When President Harry Truman wanted to add a balcony to the White House, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts advised against it. Truman built it anyway and let those commissioners' terms expire. When legislators lobbed all kinds of criticism at Maya Lin's contemplative design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Commission (CFA) protected the fundamentals of her concept, albeit agreeing to some concessions to appease the critics.
More recently, the Biden administration shook up the entire Fine Arts agency by asking for the resignations of four commissioners appointed by President Trump, including the chair Justin Shubow. Biden then swiftly announced his appointees to the seven-member commission. All of them will meet for the first time today.
The U.S. Commission of Fine Arts was established by Congress in 1910 "to advise the federal government on matters pertaining to the arts and national symbols, and to guide the architectural development of Washington, D.C." Commissioners are selected for their expertise in art and architecture.
"It's a little bit like design court where you come and you present your case to the judges," says CFA Secretary Thomas Luebke. "The general idea is to lift the quality of design in the national capital and to promote the dignity and beauty of the city."
From Giant Monuments To The Coins In Your Pocket
In a given year, the CFA reviews hundreds of cases that vary widely in scope and scale. The proposals they review run the gamut from the immense coffered barrel vault design for the D.C. Metro's underground stations to small engravings for coins that fit in your pocket. In May, 2021, the commission reviewed coin designs submitted by a number of states. For Mississippi, the choices were Delta blues motifs and images of the world's first lung transplant. The CFA went for the lung transplant, even though one commissioner admitted the images made him squeamish.
President Trump's appointees to the CFA were all white and male, earning them the nickname the "Bow Tie Boys." Biden's commissioners will make the agency more diverse. They are Peter Cook, a principal at HGA Architects whose past projects include the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African American History and Culture; Hazel Ruth Edwards, a professor and chair of Howard University's Department of Architecture; Justin Garrett Moore, the inaugural program officer of the Humanities in Place program at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; and Billie Tsien, a partner at Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, whose firm designed the Barack Obama Presidential Center.
"They all bring very different, important perspectives to the commission," says architect Kimberly Dowdell, a principal with HOK Chicago and Board member of the National Organization of Minority Architects. Given the influence the CFA has on the nation's collective culture, Dowdell believes diversity is critical. "Art and architecture and things that we see and feel, even music and other types of art, they evoke emotions ... and those emotions are based on our background and our experiences," she says. "And so having a commission that represents that diversity helps us to really appreciate a wider variety of artistic expression," and "different ways of seeing the world."
A Lack Of Landscape Architects
What the new CFA lacks, however, is a professional landscape architect. Perry Guillot, the lone landscape architect appointed by President Trump, was one of the commissioners dismissed by the Biden administration. The omission is of "deep concern" to Ron Henderson, professor and director of the Landscape Architecture and Urbanism program at Illinois Institute of Technology.
"The [National] Mall is the great landscape of our democracy," says Henderson. "And it is a landscape. It's not a building." Henderson points to the challenges the CFA is likely to face in the coming years including the sinking Tidal Basin and the need for security around the U.S. Capitol since the January 6 insurrection. "Notions of public space, notions of monuments, climate change ... all of these are the purview of landscape architects," says Henderson. "Exactly how to address history and contemporary concerns in the landscape simply demands the presence of a landscape architect with expertise in reading public space."
The new Fine Arts Commissioners will need to hit the ground running. The robust agenda for their first meeting includes choosing a new chair, reviewing proposed renovations to the Smithsonian Castle and Arts & Industries Building and plans for a new, ten-story office building for the Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency at St. Elizabeths, a National Historic Landmark and the first federally-funded mental hospital in the country. They will also review designs for a number of commemorative coins.