The Biden administration on Monday reversed a Trump-era rule dictating what kind of art can be commissioned for federal buildings as part of an effort to have public art better reflect America’s diversity.
The new rule removes content and style restrictions that Biden administration officials say excluded many artists from consideration for the Art in Architecture program, which commissions visual art in federal buildings.
Then-President Donald Trump issued an executive order in his last year in office that said the art commissioned by the program should depict “historically significant Americans or events of American historical significance or illustrate the ideals upon which our Nation was founded.”
The order specified that monuments of former US presidents, “individuals and events relating to the discovery of America, the founding of the United States, and the abolition of slavery,” should be prioritized.
Any statue or work of art that is meant to depict a historical US figure, the order added, “shall be a lifelike or realistic representation of that person, not an abstract or modernist representation.” Trump issued the order – “Building and Rebuilding Monuments to American Heroes” – in July 2020.
The order came in the wake of protests around the country following the death of George Floyd and a national discussion on race, which included heated debate over monuments to some historical figures from the nation’s past – particularly those who had fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War. Trump often said he was in favor of leaving up the controversial monuments to Confederate generals and leaders, as well as other figures from the nation’s past, because taking them down would amount to erasing the nation’s history. Others argue the monuments are racist symbols of America’s dark legacy of slavery, and some cities have taken steps to remove them.
Krystal Brumfield, the associate administrator for the Office of Government-wide Policy within the General Services Administration, said removing the requirements would increase opportunities for many artists who come from underrepresented communities across the country.
“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,” Brumfield said.
The final rule is effective Monday, according to GSA press secretary Christina Wilkes, and will be officially published to the Federal Register on Wednesday.
The updated policy follows on an executive order President Joe Biden issued in May revoking several presidential actions by Trump. Officials note the action also supports the executive order Biden signed on his first full day in office titled “Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government.”
The Art in Architecture program has been run out of GSA since 1972, and in the past 50 years the program has produced about 500 pieces of art, according to Brumfield.
GSA Administrator Robin Carnahan said in a news release: “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 reversal is another step by the Biden administration to undo Trump’s vision for how federal buildings should look.
In December 2020, Trump signed an executive order seeking to ensure that federal buildings featured “beautiful” architecture, expressing a preference for classical architecture over modernist designs. The order did not explicitly define what standards buildings must meet to be considered beautiful, saying that new federal buildings should be of classical design but not mandating that style. The move was met with resistance from some architects, including the American Institute of Architects, which expressed strong opposition to the executive order.
Biden later revoked that executive order in February 2021.