On Monday, President Joe Biden rolled back a Trump-era rule restricting the visual art that could be displayed in federal buildings. The order, implemented in July 2020 amid nationwide Black Lives Matter demonstrations against the police killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, stipulated that works commissioned should portray prominent American historical figures, events, and “illustrate ideals upon which our nation was founded.” The order also required a “lifelike or realistic representation of that person, not an abstract or modernist representation.”
The narrow stipulations excluded a large number of artists from consideration from the Art in Architecture program, which commissions artwork in government spaces. The amendment to the policy, announced by the General Services Administration, reverses the restrictions on subject matter with the aim of attracting diverse candidates and art styles.
“GSA’s public art collection is a national treasure, and this rule reflects the government’s important role in ensuring equity and opportunity for artists of all kinds and from all communities,” said the agency’s administrator, Robin Carnahan, in a statement.
Carnahan added, “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.”
The Trump mandate specified that statues should depict figures such as former presidents, abolitionists, or police and firefighters killed or injured during service. “America owes its present greatness to its past sacrifices,” the document said. It also dedicated a section to the debate around monuments to Civil War generals and other controversial historical figures linked to slavery and colonialism, which were the frequent target of protestors.
“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.
Art in Architecture has commissioned around 500 pieces of public artwork on government property since 1972. Among the works that would have failed to meet Trump’s nationalistic stipulations are Alexander Calder’s soaring 1974 sculpture Flamingo, outside the John C. Kluczynski Federal Building in Chicago, and Ellsworth Kelly’s 1998 Boston Panels, a series of monochromatic panels installed in seven areas of Boston’s John Joseph Moakley US Courthouse.
“Art looks different in different parts of the country and in different communities, and so now this allows us when we go into a federal building to potentially see art that reflects that local community and/or the individuals within the community and across the country,” Krystal Brumfield, associate administrator for Office of Government-wide Policy within the General Services Administration, said in a statement.
This is the second effort from Biden’s administration to undo Trump’s agenda against the aesthetics of federal spaces. In December 2020, Trump signed an executive order to ensure all new government buildings costing more than $50 million feature “beautiful architecture.” The order said that “classical architectural style shall be the preferred and default style,” and disparaged Brutalism and Deconstructivism as having “little aesthetic appeal.” Biden rescinded that executive order in February 2021.