The chair of the US Commission of Fine Arts, Justin Shubow, along with three of his colleagues on the board—portraitist Chas Fagan, landscape architect Perry Guillot, and architect Steven Spandle—have been removed by the Biden administration, leaving four of the seven seats open, with the White House announcing it intends to make more diverse appointments. The CFA is an advisory board that provides artistic counsel to Congress, the President, and government departments on matters of aesthetics ranging from memorials, coins, medals, new or renovated government buildings, and more.
The four commissioners who were dismissed are believed to have helped shape a hugely controversial executive order issued by Trump in his final year in office called “Make Federal Buildings Great Again”, which mandated that all federal buildings be built in the Neoclassical style. The order was widely reviled by the architectural community, and the American Institute of Architects issued a statement opposing a mandate for a uniform style, saying: “Architecture should be designed for the specific communities that it serves, reflecting our rich nation’s diverse places, thought, culture and climates.” Biden revoked the order soon after taking office.
Shubow says he received a letter on Monday from the director of the White House Office of Presidential Personnel, which was shared with NPR. "Should we not receive your resignation, your position with the Commission will be terminated effective 6:00 pm tonight," the letter read.
In a statement, Shubow says he “was shocked and dismayed to learn that three of my fellow commissioners, along with myself, have been asked to resign or be terminated by the President. In the Commission's 110-year history, no commissioner has ever been removed by a President, let alone the commission's chairman. Any such removal would set a terrible precedent."
Shubow was appointed as commission chair in 2018, while Fagan, Guillot, and Spandel’s terms began only months ago, in January 2021, just before Biden took office. Posts to the commission are intended to last four years, and removals are unusual if not unheard of. “Given that all of the threatened commissioners support classical architecture, the White House’s action clearly represents an attack on that type of design, even though it is approved by most Americans,” Shubow told The Washington Post, adding that thus far only Fagan has accepted the request for resignation.
Earlier this year, the Biden administration also removed two Trump appointees from the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC), which oversee development in Washington DC and surrounding counties, following a letter from John Falcicchio, Washington, DC’s deputy mayor for planning and economic development. Falcicchio noted the lack of diversity in Trump’s appointees—in addition to it being the first all-white commission in a decade, Trump staffed the commission so that it included only men for the first time since 1963—and referred to the Neoclassical executive order as “ill-conceived”, adding that it “seeks to make our Nation’s Capital a mausoleum of neoclassical architecture”.
“For the sake of Washington, DC’s residents and visitors, the NCPC and CFA need members committed to meeting the myriad challenges and opportunities of today,” reads Falcicchio’s letter, which was obtained by The Washington Post. “The buildings and landscapes of Washington, DC must address the urgent needs for sustainability, resilience, and housing. They must also embrace our diversity and advance equity as a remedy to the legacy of discrimination that shapes our surroundings to this day.”
To fill the vacancies in the fine arts commission, which do not require Senate confirmation, Biden plans to appoint four new members, according to a statement from the White House. They are: Peter Cook, a principal at HGA Architects; Hazel Ruth Edwards, a professor and the chair of Howard University's architecture department; Justin Garrett Moore, the inaugural programme officer of the Humanities in Place initiative at the Andrew Mellon Foundation; and Billie Tsien, a partner at Todd Williams Billie Tsien Architects. Cook’s recent projects notably include the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African American History and Culture, and Tsien’s firm is designing the Barack Obama Presidential Center in Chicago.
While the additions bring some needed demographic diversity to the board, it skews more towards building expertise than previous administrations. “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,” says Charles A. Birnbaum, president and CEO of The Cultural Landscape Foundation. “Under the Obama Administration, the Commission of Fine Arts had three landscape architects as commissioners: Elizabeth Meyer, Liza Gilbert and Mia Lehrer.”
"Traditionally appointments to the CFA have been made on the basis of expertise and experience, not ideological belief in any single style or approach to architecture, and in this sense these four new appointees represent a welcome return to this custom, ending a brief period when members appear to have been chosen on the basis of their stylistic loyalties more than anything else," says the Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic Paul Goldberg. "The new appointees are all superb talents whose judgment will benefit the CFA. The outgoing chairman’s views on classicism are akin to a fundamentalist’s views on religion, and I’m pleased that the current administration would like to see a more enlightened attitude prevail. That said, I’m sorry that the CFA will lose the talents of Perry Guillot, who was more broadminded than the other Trump appointees."