Biden Shakes up Commission of Fine Arts

John Hill
26. May 2021
The Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial, that opened in September 2020 and was designed by Frank Gehry, is one of the many DC projects reviewed by the Commission of Fine Arts. (Photo courtesy of Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Commission)

US President Joe Biden has removed four Trump-appointed members of the US Commission of Fine Arts, the agency that reviews designs for government buildings and other public projects in Washington, DC, replacing them with four new — and diverse — members.

Normally a US President's swapping of committee members would hardly merit mention, but Donald Trump had used the Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) as yet another political fuse, crafting an executive order "Promoting Beautiful Federal Civic Architecture," attacking anything not neoclassical, and loading up the commission exclusively with white men, the antithesis of the diverse membership under his predecessor, Barack Obama. Biden's four appointments, listed at bottom, bring diversity back to the commission in terms of race and gender but also on style, aesthetics, and other concerns relevant to the commission.

Trump's CFA was chaired by Justin Shubow, appointed in 2018. For years Shubow, as president of the National Civic Art Society, was bent on stopping the realization of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial, designed by Frank Gehry as early as 2009. His efforts certainly complicated the long process of getting the design approved by the CFA and other agencies, but they were unsuccessful, as last year's opening of the Eisenhower Memorial obviously attests. Trump's executive order, first leaked in February 2020 and almost certainly penned by Shubow, took aim at designs like Gehry's, using the federal government as a way to stamp out art and architecture not aligned with classical principles. Critics were understandably livid

Biden revoked the Trump/Shubow executive order in February of this year, but there was indication at the time if he would replace any members of the commission, four of whom were appointed in the last weeks of Trump's term. Yet as NPR points out in its story on Biden's four appointments to the commission, "their positions are appointed by the president and do not need to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate." While the Biden administration asked four members to resign, the administration has the right to remove them even if they decline, as Shubow did. 

Nevertheless, it is unprecedented, as pointed out by Philip Kennicott in the Washington Post, to remove members of the commission before the end of their four-year terms (Shubow would have been on the commission until October 2022 and the latest Trump appointees would serve until January 2025). The removals risk "politicizing the body," but considering it was already politicized, and lacking in diversity, the replacements depoliticize the federal board, as Kennicott attests, which "could yield a healthier institution." 

Other than Shubow and landscape architect Perry Guillot, it is not clear who else is at the CFA is being replaced by these four appointees that were announced yesterday:

  • Peter D. Cook, Principal, HGA Architects.
  • Hazel R. Edwards, Professor and Chair, Howard University Department of Architecture in the College of Engineering and Architecture.
  • Justin Garrett Moore, Inaugural Program Officer, Humanities in Place, Andrew Mellon Foundation.
  • Billie Tsien, Partner, Todd Williams Billie Tsien Architects.

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