Biden administration replaces four members of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts

Out With The Classical...

Biden administration replaces four members of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts

John Russell Pope’s neoclassical West Building at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. (NCinDC/Flickr/ CC BY-ND 2.0)

Justin Shubow, chair of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts (CFA), along with three other members of the powerful seven-member Commission—landscape architect Perry Guillot, architect Steven Spandle, and artist Chas Fagan—have been asked to resign by the Biden administration.

The news was first reported last night by right-wing media outlet The Federalist and subsequently confirmed by NPR.

The request came in the form of a May 24 letter from Catherine M. Russell, director of the White House Office of Presidential Personnel. In the letter, Russell asked that the four commissioners in question submit their resignations by 6 p.m. If the respective members failed to do, their positions would be terminated effective 6 p.m., yesterday.

Shubow shared a copy of the letter with AN as well as a statement in reaction to it, pointing out the unprecedented nature of the move:

“In the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts’ 110-year history, no President has removed a single commissioner—let alone a majority of the commission, and let alone the elected chairman. Were Biden to remove commissioners, it would set a terrible precedent by politicizing an apolitical, non-partisan body. All of the threatened commissioners are proponents of classical and traditional public art and architecture, and the White House’s action clearly represents an attack on that sort of design, even though it is preferred by the vast majority of the American people. It is ironic that President Biden is a great admirer of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, yet FDR was a staunch proponent of classical architecture for Washington, D.C., which he called ‘the loveliest city in the world.’ It is my hope that this administration does not want to bring back the ugliness of Brutalism or any other dismal styles.”

In his response to Russell, which Shubow also shared with AN, he wrote: “I respectfully decline your request to resign. I request an explanation of the legal basis and grounds of your extraordinary request and accompanying threat of termination.”

He continued:

“Lawfully appointed to a four-year term by the President in October 2018, I have served on the Commission honorably and well, and indeed was elected chairman by my fellow commissioners. I am a well-qualified judge of the fine arts who The New York Times and NPR called ‘one of modern architecture’s biggest critics.’ I have not received a single complaint about my performance.”

All four members in question are Trump appointees. Shubow, who serves as president of the National Civic Art Society and is an outspoken proponent of classical architecture (and ardent critic of Brutalism, whose views are made loud and clear in Trump’s controversial, now-revoked “Beautiful Architecture” executive order), was appointed by the former president in October of 2018, as mentioned in his response to Russell. The three other members were appointed during the final days of Trump’s presidency to replace four commissioners (Rusty Powell, Toni Griffin, Alex Krieger, and former vice-chair Elizabeth Meyer) whose four-year terms were concluding. Current vice-chair Rodney Mims Cook Jr., also appointed in January 2021 by Trump, did not receive a letter from the White House requesting his resignation. Cook is founder and president of the National Monuments Foundation.

Southampton, New York-based Guillot was the designer of the revamped White House Rose Garden and Spandle, based in Hoboken, New Jersey, was the lead architect of Melania Trump’s classically inspired tennis pavilion at the White House. In addition to his sculptural works, including a facsimile of Ronald Reagan that sits in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, North Carolina-based Fagan is also known for his oil paintings of American presidents.

The CFA, which functions as an independent agency of the U.S. Government, was established in 1910 with architect Daniel Burnham serving as its first chair. Formed as an entity to protect the McMillian Plan, the Senate Park Commission-penned 1902 plan that created the National Mall and other D.C. landmarks within the monumental core, the contemporary CFA is tasked with the review of the “design and aesthetics” of all new construction within the capital. In its advisory role, it does not, however, have the authority to outright approve or reject construction projects.

The current composition of the CFA is markedly less diverse in terms of non-male and non-white representation than it has been in the recent past (it is the first all-white commission in more than a decade) although Shubow, elected as chair in January, is the first Jewish person to hold that position. A new chair will be elected in the coming weeks.

Guillot told NPR that while he did not offer the White House a letter of resignation, he accepts his termination and wishes “President Biden and the serving commissioners the best moving forward.” Noting that he is “disappointed” in only have been able to serve on the commission for five months, he went on to explain that he believes “the math” is behind the ouster and not the ire-inducing push for classical architecture (and frequent lambasting of modern architecture) that defined the previous administration. “My work is not informed by classical ideals or part of that vocabulary,” he explained to NPR, contradicting Shubow’s statement that all four unseated commissioners were adherents of classical architecture.

Fagan was reportedly the only commissioner to formally resign after receiving the White House’s request to do so. In addition to Cook, the two remaining Trump-appointed CFA commissioners are architect Duncan G. Stroik and James C. ­McCrery, an assistant professor at the Catholic University of America’s School of Architecture and Planning. Both were appointed in 2019.

UpdateFollowing news of the forced resignation of the four members of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, NPR is now reporting that the White House has named four new members that it intends to appoint: architect Peter D. Cook, a design principal with HGA Architects who has worked on a number of high-profile projects including the Smithsonian’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, a designer, educator, and former executive director of the New York City Public Design Commission who currently serves as inaugural program officer of the Humanities in Place program at the Andrew Mellon Foundation, and Billie Tsien, partner at Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects and president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

A White House official told NPR: “President Biden is proud to nominate this extremely qualified and well-respected group of professionals to the Commission on Fine Arts. They will bring to the commission a diversity of background and experience, as well as a range of aesthetic viewpoints.”

The White House later confirmed its intended CFA appointments in an official statement.

The above cohort of planned appointees is a powerful one that renders the CFA far more diverse than Trump left it. The removal of Guillot, however, does leave the commission with no landscape architects, a fact pointed out by Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF). “Under the Obama Administration, the Commission of Fine Arts had three landscape architects as commissioners: Elizabeth Meyer, Liza Gilbert, and Mia Lehrer,” said TCLF president and CEO Charles A. Birnbaum in a statement provided to AN. “None of the four proposed commissioners is a landscape architect, which is notable considering how much of the capital’s unique and significant landscape legacy falls within its purview.”