The newest Commission of Fine Arts is sworn in, with Billie Tsien as its chair

All In Favor?

The newest Commission of Fine Arts is sworn in, with Billie Tsien as its chair

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

For the first time in its 111-year history, the Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) in Washington, D.C., has a female chair.

The commission voted at its monthly meeting on Thursday, June 17, to make architect Billie Tsien its new chair and Howard University educator Hazel Ruth Edwards vice-chair, effective immediately.

Tsien and Edwards are two of four new members who were sworn in to serve on the seven-member panel after President Joe Biden nominated them in May. They replaced four commissioners appointed by former President Donald Trump, including Steven Spandle, Chas Fagan, Perry Guillot, and Justin Shubow, whom Tsien replaced as chair. Other Biden appointees included designers Peter Cook and Justin Garrett Moore.

“This is an unusual day,” said commission secretary Thomas Luebke at the start of the meeting. “We’ve had women who have served as vice-chair but you’d be the first woman chair, so congratulations,” he told Tsien, a founding partner of Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects in New York and president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Billie tsien being sworn in, hand raised
Billie Tsien being sworn in (Courtesy the Commission of Fine Arts)

The remaining members are Rodney Mims Cook Jr., Duncan Stroik, and James McCrery. McCrery nominated Cook to serve as chair. All of the new commissioners voted in favor of Tsien, including Tsien herself.

The CFA is an independent federal agency charged with giving expert advice to the President, Congress, and the federal and District of Columbia governments on matters of design and aesthetics as they affect the federal interest and preserve the dignity of the nation’s capital. Tsien is the 12th chair in the commission’s history.

After she was named chair, Tsien presided over the rest of the meeting, which was conducted virtually and included reviews of several key projects in Washington. Visible onscreen behind her was a large wall hanging by Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui that she and Williams had purchased 20 years ago.

The agenda included the scaled-down, EYP-Loring LLC.-led renovation plans for the Smithsonian Institution Building (also known as the “Castle” building), the Smithsonian Institution’s Arts & Industries Building, rehabilitation of the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Memorial, a 10-story building for the U. S. Department of Homeland Security, and plans to transform the former Newseum building at 555 Pennsylvania Avenue into a new home for Johns Hopkins University graduate programs. Panel members also approved a request to add Ashley Robbins Wilson to the Old Georgetown Board, which reviews plans for projects in the Georgetown section of Washington, D. C.

Tsien was quick to offer opinions about the projects under review, calling the proposed stone corners on the Hopkins project “delicious.” Several commissioners noted that Hopkins’ architect, Ennead, was essentially redesigning a building that the same firm had designed before when it was called the Polshek Partnership and the Newseum was the client. “Jim would be proud,” Tsien said, referring to founding partner James Polshek, in praising the presentation by Ennead’s Billy Erhard. The project received final approval.

Tsien also expressed skepticism about a plan by the Smithsonian to use glass to clad a rooftop element proposed for the Castle Building, dubbed “the doghouse.” Glass is never as transparent as people think it will be, she warned the presenters, suggesting that they hedge their bets and consider other materials.

A veteran of numerous public presentations, Tsien seemed to get the hang of the job right away, although she did accept advice from Luebke.

At the end of the meeting, Tsien expressed satisfaction in an email message with the way it went. “I felt heartened by the positive and civil discussion we had as a Commission,” she said.