Art Works Blog

The Public's Art

Washington, DC

Community by Jacob Lawrence (1989) Joseph P. Addabbo Federal Building in Jamaica, Queens. Photo by Carol Highsmith

If you’ve ever served on jury duty, you know it can sometimes be a painful process. It disrupts daily schedules. Selection can be unsettling. You spend a lot of quality time with the waiting room and its inherent watery coffee. “Very few happy people come to federal courthouses,” says Jennifer Gibson, acting director of the Art in Architecture/Fine Arts program at the General Services Administration (GSA). “It’s a tense audience.”

But what if this tension were punctuated with the beauty and provocation of a little art? If you look around the next time you’re at a United States courthouse, you’ll find that it probably is. The mission of the Art in Architecture program is to ensure that every federal building houses artwork by the country’s most talented artists. While the term “federal building” might evoke powerhouse Washington institutions like the Departments of Justice or Agriculture, it also encompasses courthouses, immigration services, border patrol stations, and even certain post offices found across the nation. For every new building, GSA receives a half-percent of estimated construction costs to commission new artwork. For prospectus-level renovations, this same percentage is used toward conserving or re-siting existing pieces. The result is a canon of artwork that not only reflects a given region and audience, but captures the spirit and aesthetics of a moment in time.

Sky by Leo Villareal (2010) U.S. Courthouse in El Paso, Texas. Photo by Leo Villareal

Gibson noted that, “Throughout history, governments or whoever has been the leader of a country…have seen [art] as an important aspect of what they do to enhance their society, to make their presence known in the world, to show the significance of what’s going on, and to record their history. I think in a way we’re continuing in a legacy of great societies.”

Our own national legacy is expressed in every form and medium imaginable, from murals and LED installations to sculpture and even gardens. In Miami, rippling waves of sculpted lawn evoke the city’s oceanfront setting, providing a unique piece of landscape art for the Wilkie D. Ferguson, Jr. Courthouse. The work, titled Flutter, was designed by artist Maya Lin---best known for designing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial---as a means of creating a patch of tranquility within the city.

Flutter by Maya Lin (2005) Wilkie D. Ferguson Jr., U.S. Courthouse in Miami, Florida. Photo by Carol Highsmith

When Baltimore’s George H. Fallon Building was due for a renovation in 2008, artist Jean Shin was commissioned to create a piece for the lobby. The building houses a number of federal agencies, including local branches of U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services and the Veterans Benefits Administration. To incorporate these different aspects of American life, Shin created Dress Code, a large-scale mural made from clothing remnants of recently naturalized citizens and members of the armed services.

Dress Code by Jean Shin (2008) George H. Fallon Federal Building in Baltimore, Maryland. Photo by Seong Kwon

The first pieces of federal art date from 1850s New Orleans, and largely consisted of Beaux-Arts works and figurative sculpture. With the New Deal however, art became prioritized in an entirely different way. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) treated artists as ordinary working professionals, and used commissions to keep them employed while simultaneously building the country’s artistic heritage. Today, roughly 26,000 New Deal pieces are out on loan to various institutions across the U.S. “The idea is that we return it to the public,” said Gibson. “They’ve paid for it, and you allow them access to it.”

Throughout this period, artwork was managed by the Department of the Treasury; it wasn’t until 1942 that federal commissions came under GSA’s purview. The current Art in Architecture program is largely rooted in the Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture, issued in 1962 by the Kennedy administration.

Continents by Daniel Chester French (1907) Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House in New York, New York. Photo by Carol Highsmith

One of the main changes that took hold in the modern incarnation of Art in Architecture is how the artists are chosen. Previously, this was largely an architect-driven decision. Today, an in-depth panel process takes place in the project’s home city, and involves national and regional GSA fine arts officers, members of the community, local artists, the building’s lead designer, and the tenant agency. Once an artist is chosen from a national registry, final proposals are reviewed and support is given as needed along the way. For example, a textile conservator was brought in to advise Shin as she created Dress Code, and recommended which materials and adhesives were suitable for long-term installations.

“The conservator said, ‘Do not use wool, cotton, or silk in this piece. It’s like putting out a cafeteria for the bugs,’” Gibson remembered. “The artist had never thought about that. The artist had been using wallpaper paste. Bugs love wallpaper paste…there are so many things to think about.”

Society Freed Through Justice by George Biddle (1936) U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. Photo by Carol Highsmith

While Gibson acknowledged that ensuring public access can be a challenge in certain high-security buildings, she said, “They’re the public’s buildings, and the public shouldn’t diminish their importance. When I first came to GSA, I sat on a panel for a project in Kentucky. The strongest advocate was the state arts council member, who said, ‘This is going to be the only art in this city. The schoolchildren are going to come and look at this.’ What was interesting was that this was how the WPA and the Treasury section of Fine Arts was discussed: that every American was entitled to access to the art.”

Will everyone like every piece commissioned? Of course not: we’re an opinionated country. The most famous---and dramatic---example of our civil outspokenness stems from Tilted Arc, a sculpture by Richard Serra which was unveiled in 1981 on New York’s Federal Plaza. Major public backlash prompted hearings on the piece, and a decision was reached to dismantle the installation in 1989. To forestall future controversies, several procedural practices were changed and greater accountability was instituted.

Alexander Calder, Flamingo (1974) John C. Kluczynski Federal Building, Chicago, IL. Photo by Carol Highsmith

These days, GSA relies on what Gibson calls the “integrity of process,” which she hopes results in “a wonderful piece of art.” Whether beautiful or provocative, innovative or classic, the artwork will take its place amid the country’s artistic pantheon. When asked what she hoped the impact of the Art in Architecture program was, Gibson paused a moment to reflect. “I hope that in the future there’s a legacy that people are proud of, and think, ‘Weren’t we lucky?’”

We certainly are.

Have you seen the latest issue of NEA Arts? That's Non-Sign II---a GSA-commissioned piece by Lead Pencil Studio---on the cover!

Add new comment