Biden Reverses Trump Order Mandating American-Centric Art in Federal Buildings

The General Services Administration says the change will help represent the diversity of the nation

abstract red sculpture in city square
Alexander Calder's Flamingo sculpture in Chicago is one of the pieces of art in federal buildings that wouldn't have met Trump's strict requirements. Vincent Desjardins via Flickr under CC 2.0

Earlier this week, President Joe Biden revoked a Trump-era order that placed limitations on the kinds of art that could be displayed in federal buildings. Under the previous ruling, all art commissioned by the Art in Architecture program had to depict prominent American historical figures and events or “illustrate ideals upon which our nation was founded.” As Kate Sullivan reports for CNN, the move is part of Biden’s effort to support new artworks that reflect the country’s diverse population.

Then-President Donald Trump implemented his executive order in July 2020, during the Black Lives Matter protests that swept the nation following George Floyd’s killing in police custody. The measure suggested suitable subjects for statues commissioned by the program, including the Founding Fathers, labor leaders, abolitionists, and police officers and firefighters killed or injured in the line of duty. All portraits were required to be “lifelike or realistic” rather than “abstract or Modernist.”

Trump’s mandate also discouraged the removal of statues of Civil War generals and historical figures with links to slavery and colonialism, many of which were being targeted by protesters at the time.

“These statues are not ours alone, to be discarded at the whim of those inflamed by fashionable political passions; they belong to generations that have come before us and to generations yet unborn,” the order read. “My administration will not abide an assault on our collective national memory.”

In a statement, the General Services Administration (GSA), which oversees the Art in Architecture program, notes that the new ruling “removes restrictions on subject matter, theme and art styles, restrictions that had excluded many artists from consideration for commissions.”

Nina Albert, the GSA public buildings service commissioner, adds, “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. Incorporating contemporary art in our important civic spaces exemplifies how democratic societies benefit from the creative talents of individuals.”

Art in Architecture has installed around 500 works by American artists in federal buildings across the country since its establishment in 1972, CNN reports. A number of these existing works failed to meet Trump’s requirements. Among them, writes Tessa Solomon for ARTnews, were Alexander Calder’s 1974 sculpture Flamingo, outside the John C. Kluczynski Federal Building in Chicago, and Ellsworth Kelly’s 1996–98 Boston Panels, in Boston’s John Joseph Moakley U.S. Courthouse.

The GSA chooses artists for new commissions “primarily (but not exclusively)” from a National Artist Registry of around 1,700 people, according to the Architect’s Newspaper’s Matt Hickman. As part of the new order, the GSA is actively recruiting new artists to join the registry.

This isn’t the first time Biden has reversed an art-related Trump ruling. In December 2020, Trump signed an executive order requiring all new government buildings to feature “beautiful public architecture.” The mandate encouraged classical architecture as the “preferred and default style” and dismissed several modern buildings as “ugly.” Per Taylor Dafoe of Artnet News, the order garnered opposition from the American Institute of Architects, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and other observers. Biden rescinded the measure in February 2021.

Trump had also outlined plans for “a vast outdoor park [featuring] the statues of the greatest Americans to ever live”—the so-called National Garden of American Heroes. As William Wan reported for the Washington Post in July 2020, the proposal included a list of 31 “heroes” that historians described as “random,” “odd,” and “provocative.” Individuals named ranged from historical figures like John Adams and Frederick Douglass to evangelist Billy Graham to conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Pop culture icons like Kobe Bryant and Alex Trebek (who lived in Canada until his 30s) also made the cut. Proposed sites for the garden ranged in size from 100 to 1,000 acres—significantly larger than the roughly 300-acre National Mall. Biden revoked the order in May 2021.

[SM1]By whom? Biden’s administration? The federal government? The country?

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