Biden seeks to replace several Trump appointees on arts commission

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Biden seeks to replace several Trump appointees on arts commission
A view of the restored Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, Aug. 22, 2020. Four of the seven members of the federal Commission of Fine Arts, a generally low-key, earnest design advisory group that became embroiled in battles over architectural style during the Trump era, have been told by the Biden administration to resign or face termination, according to the commission’s chairman. Doug Mills/The New York Times.

by Matt Stevens

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Four of the seven members of the federal Commission of Fine Arts, a generally low-key, earnest design advisory group that became embroiled in battles over architectural style during the Trump era, have been told by the Biden administration to resign or face termination, according to the commission’s chair.

All seven members of the commission were appointed by former President Donald Trump; four were appointed Jan. 12, just days before Trump left office.

The commission offers advice on “matters of design and aesthetics, as they affect the federal interest and preserve the dignity of the nation’s capital,” according to its website. Trump thrust architecture into the culture wars late in his presidency when he signed an executive order establishing classical architecture as the preferred style for new federal buildings, over the opposition of prominent architecture and preservation groups, which bristled at any attempt that could be seen as trying to impose a national style.

The commission’s chair, Justin Shubow, who was a driving force behind the push to promote classical architecture, said that he and three other members of the commission — architect Steven Spandle, artist Chas Fagan and landscape architect Perry Guillot — had been asked to resign. He noted that the commission’s members are appointed to four-year terms and said that seeking their removal would break a long-standing precedent.

“The administration’s actions constitute an attack on classical architecture, a style that is beloved by the vast majority of the American people,” Shubow said in an email, adding that he hoped the administration did not intend to “bring back the ugliness of Brutalism or any other dismal styles.”

Shubow declined the request to resign, according to email correspondence reviewed by The New York Times. The emails showed that he had received a formal letter from an assistant to the president requesting his resignation Monday. The letter said that if the White House did not receive his resignation, his position with the commission would be terminated effective 6 p.m. the same day.

“In the Commission’s 110-year history, no commissioner has ever been removed by a president, let alone the commission’s chairman,” Shubow wrote in an email response. “Any such removal would set a terrible precedent.”

A spokesperson for the White House said Tuesday that President Joe Biden planned to appoint four new members to the Commission on Fine Arts who will collectively bring a wider range of aesthetic viewpoints. The appointees include Peter Cook, a principal at HGA Architects who has worked on the National Museum of African American History and Culture; Hazel Ruth Edwards, chair of the Howard University Department of Architecture; Justin Garrett Moore, a designer and urbanist at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; and Billie Tsien, a partner at Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects.

Administration officials noted that the four members they had removed had been appointed by the previous administration, and suggested their aesthetic sensibilities — including their strong advocacy for classical architecture — did not align with Biden’s.

Before the change, the lack of diversity among Trump’s appointees was criticized by some who noted that it was made up of all white men.

In a telephone interview Tuesday, Guillot, who worked on a recent renovation of the Rose Garden, confirmed that he too was asked to resign his position Monday. He said he had thought it best to simply let the 6 p.m. deadline pass, after which he wrote a letter to White House staff lamenting that his term had been so short and offering the Biden administration good wishes.

“I thought this was the way to let it go gently,” he said, adding that he would have preferred to stay on. “I found the work incredibly meaningful.”

Guillot also said he did not “come from the strict classical school.”

“This will be a moment when the CFA also became politicized,” he said. “It may, in fact, be that terms are new when an administration begins, like a Cabinet post.”

Spandle did not immediately respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

Shubow, who was chosen as chair of the commission in January, noted that all four of the Trump administration’s late-term appointments had replaced members named by former President Barack Obama as he was about to leave office.

The classical architecture issue proved divisive among architects. The order Trump eventually signed, titled “Promoting Beautiful Federal Civic Architecture,” established classical architecture as the preferred style for new federal buildings but stopped short of banning other styles.

The American Institute of Architects called on the Biden administration to reverse the order. Philip Kennicott, the art and architecture critic for The Washington Post, wrote in February that Biden should remove the members of the commission, describing them as less distinguished than their predecessors.

Biden revoked the architecture order soon after he took office.

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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