Setting the Standard: The NEA Initiates the Federal Design Improvement Program

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Architectural detail showing a large window with inscriptions set on the glass which cast their shadows on an opposite wall.

The Women in Military Service For America Memorial in Arlington, Virginia received an NEA Federal Design Award in 2000. The jury praised the "integration of the graphics and the architecture" and noted that the center has "an engaging, but not overwhelming monumentality suitable to its time."
Photo courtesy of Weiss/Manfredi Architects

"I believe that we all can find that the arts have a great deal more to contribute to what we in government are seeking to accomplish -- and that this will be good for the arts and good for the country."                                                     -- President Richard Nixon, 1971

In a May 1971 memo, President Richard Nixon directed the heads of all federal departments and agencies to consider how the arts and artists might "be of help to your agency and to its programs." The overwhelming response was that the federal government needed better offices and better graphics.

In 1972, NEA Chairman Nancy Hanks developed the Federal Design Improvement program, a four-pronged plan for upgrading federal design."

As noted in the Arts Endowment's 1972 annual report, the first part of the plan was that "the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities . . . will sponsor annual design assemblies for federal administrators and artists." More than 1,000 federal officials and designers attended the first Federal Design Assembly in April 1973, participating in presentations and workshops on architecture; landscape architecture; and graphic, interior, and industrial design. The Arts Endowment hosted four such assemblies to foster relationships between federal agencies and the design world.

The Federal Graphics Improvement program, active from 1972 to 1981, was a second component of the Federal Design Improvement program. A panel of prestigious graphic designers convened to critique the graphics of participating federal agencies. This critique was not limited only to paper products; planes, ambulances, and even the Congressional Record also were cited for redesign. Ultimately, more than 45 government agencies, including the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the U.S. Postal Service, revamped their graphics under this mandate.

A third component of the federal design program was the Federal Architecture Project spearheaded by the Task Force on Federal Architecture. Notable members of the task force included prolific mid-20th century designer Charles Eames and Harry Weese, the designer of DC's Metro stations. As a result of the task force's efforts Congress passed the Public Buildings Cooperative Use Act in 1976. The Act allowed for mixed public/private use of new and restored government buildings, addressing the underuse of federal buildings and the need for those buildings to be better integrated into their communities.

The task force also reviewed and expanded Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture, a 1962 report on federal office space, and compiled The Federal Presence, which became the definitive work on federal architecture at the time.

A series of NEA/GSA (General Services Administration) Design Charrettes, or workshops, also resulted from the Federal Architecture Project. The charrettes were implemented whenever a federal property was in need of design reconsideration, as was the case when the Pensioner's Building was repurposed as the National Building Museum.

Although the Federal Architecture Project was officially inactive after 1977, it continued to bear fruit. In 1983 President Ronald Reagan inaugurated the Presidential Design Awards program, based on an earlier task force recommendation. These awards were for public-funded projects only and were awarded five times between 1984 and 2000. (In 1997, the NEA established a partnership with the GSA to administer the awards.) Past winners of the award, the highest achievement in design at the federal level, include Miami's National Hurricane Center, the restoration of New York City's Grand Central Terminal, and the Web sites of the U.S. Senate and the National Gallery of Art.

A fourth component of the Arts Endowment's plan for the Federal Design Improvement Program involved a review of the guidelines for "rating and employing artists for federal service." The NEA and the GSA convened a team of advisors, including architects Hugh Hardy and Margaret McCurry, to brainstorm ways in which to improve the talent pool of designers for federal projects. The panel recommended broadening the applicant pool by creating a peer-review process, similar to the NEA's panel system, and also streamlining the application process so that potential applicants would not be discouraged by the amount of necessary paperwork. The GSA's focus on design, initiated with the guidelines review, eventually grew into the GSA's Design Excellence program, which is credited with dramatically improving the quality of federal architecture.

Over the years the NEA has continued to collaborate on design projects with other federal agencies. With the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the NEA hosted a series of conferences aimed at improving low-income housing nationwide. HUD and the NEA also partnered on workshops to improve housing for Native Americans. Other collaborations have included an exhibit at the National Building Museum highlighting federal government design commissions and a collaboration with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to use regional planning and landscape architecture to preserve agricultural productivity.