Biden administration reverses Trump-era restrictions on federal art commissions

The US body that commissions art for federal buildings is re-entering the modern era following a period of classicism mandated by former president Donald Trump’s administration. On 31 January the General Services Administration (GSA), whose Art in Architecture program commissions art for federal buildings in the US, updated its provisions to undo the restrictive proscriptions of the Trump era and reinstate a pluralistic approach to public art that is in keeping with the Biden administration’s goals.

“Public art is for the people, and we want to make sure our public spaces reflect the rich diversity and creativity that strengthens and inspires them,” GSA administrator Robin Carnahan said in a statement. Under the Art in Architecture program, .5% of the estimated construction budget of any new federal building is put toward commissioning public art. The program has been in operation since 1972, during which time it has commissioned around 500 works. Its wide-ranging collection includes pieces by Odili Donald Odita, Alexander Calder, Leonardo Drew, Lenore Tawney, Catherine Opie and many others.

Trump’s July 2020 order “Building and Rebuilding Monuments to American Heroes” restricted the style and content of art commissioned by GSA. It stipulated that any work commemorating “a historically significant American” had to be “a lifelike or realistic representation of that person, not an abstract or modernist representation”. It also mandated that works depicting founders and former presidents of the US, “leading abolitionists and individuals involved in the discovery of America” should be prioritised.

The Trump order, issued at the height of a nationwide reckoning with public statues commemorating Confederate figures, also mandated the creation of a statuary park to be dubbed the “National Garden of American Heroes”. In May 2021 president Biden revoked the order mandating the garden’s creation.

Removing restrictions about the content and style of art commissioned by the GSA will ensure that a greater diversity of artists receive commissions and a greater variety of art is showcased in federal buildings.

“By supporting neither an official style nor subject matter, Art in Architecture seeks to include artists who work in many styles and materials and come from the diverse communities of our nation,” Nina Albert, GSA’s public buildings service commissioner, said in a statement. “Incorporating contemporary art in our important civic spaces exemplifies how democratic societies benefit from the creative talents of individuals.”

The GSA’s move away from Trump-era artistic mandates comes nearly a year after Biden removed all of his predecessor’s appointees to the US Commission of Fine Arts, a body that advises the president, Congress and government agencies on aesthetic matters. Trump had also mandated that all new federal buildings hew to a neoclassical architectural style; that executive order was also revoked by the Biden administration.

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