The GSA opens the door to more equitable art in federal buildings

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The General Services Administration not only oversees most federal buildings and offices, it also manages the artwork that graces them. It recently issued a new final rule for its Art in Architecture program, lifting what it calls restrictions on artistic subjects and themes. And to promote the administration’s equity goals. For more, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin turned to the GSA’s senior advisor to the administrator for equity, Andrea O’Neal.

Tom Temin: Ms. O’Neal, good to have you on.

Andrea O’Neal: Hi, Tom. Great to be here. Thank you for having me.

Tom Temin: Well first of all, tell us, this new rule, I guess, rescinds some of the restrictions on the artwork acquired for public buildings that were put in by the Trump administration?

Andrea O’Neal: So it realigns the rule-making based on a previously rescinded executive order and clarifies language that allows for a broader aperture of artwork to be considered for public commission.

Tom Temin: I guess the rule that was in place in between there, then, said that had to be showing the nation’s founding principles and so on and had several types of themes. And those have been pretty much pulled away to, as you say, expand the aperture.

Andrea O’Neal: Correct. So the revocation of Executive Order 13-967, was meant to further expand and diversify the type of art that could be considered. And this rule now allows for clarification that the National Artist Registry is available to all representations and expressions of art styles for consideration.

Tom Temin: Yeah, there was that preference for a realistic style. And so maybe abstract can fit the bill. And now abstract is back as a possibility.

Andrea O’Neal: Correct.

Tom Temin: All right. And let’s back up just a moment, and tell us the general process by which artwork is chosen for federal buildings. It’s pretty involved, isn’t it?

Andrea O’Neal: Yes. And I’d like to actually start with how the program is defined if that’s okay.

Tom Temin: Sure.

Andrea O’Neal: So the Art in Architecture program commissions large scale permanently installed works for federal buildings under GSA’s jurisdiction. So the commissions themselves are tied to congressionally authorized capital construction projects. And whenever GSA constructs a new federal facility or undertakes, as an example, a major modernization of an existing building, one half of 1% of the estimated construction costs for that project are available to commission artwork for the building that will again be a permanently installed piece. So in 1963, GSA started the Fine Arts in New Federal Buildings program, a precedent for art policy that, in 1972, became the Art in Architecture program. So we’re actually celebrating 50 years of Art in Architecture this year. And so it’s a great time to bring new focus to the program in the National Artist Registry. Since 1972, we’ve commissioned approximately 500 pieces for a total amount of about $67 million.

Tom Temin: And when you say major pieces of art, this could be inside or outside, like sculpture on a plaza, for example, in front of a building?

Andrea O’Neal: Correct. It is both inside and outside. We do not do monuments or commemorative pieces, but the type of art is both thinking about the inside of the building and what is available for the federal workers that inhabit that building, you know, the American public that goes to government buildings for services, as well as the art that’s outside of in the Federal Plaza. As an example, the first Art in Architecture installation was the iconic Alexander Calder flamingo, an abstract outdoor sculpture in Chicago’s Federal Plaza. And there are a number of other Art in Architecture works that have been commissioned for interior spaces, including paintings and tapestries. For example, in our own GSA headquarters building here in D.C., there’s a piece called Kites by Jacob Hashimoto that was installed in 2013, during a building modernization project. And again, no monuments or competitive artworks are part of the scope, but it really gives an opportunity to make a statement about how our federal buildings, our community members, and what that exchange looks like between our federal buildings and the public.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Andrea O’Neal, senior advisor to the administrator for equity at the General Services Administration. And for indoor art, then, this could be like murals, but generally not something you would hang on a hook.

Andrea O’Neal: Correct. These are large scale pieces that are designed alongside the architectural client, the LEED project managers and are part of the architecture of the building. You mentioned before and asked the question about selection, so just to give some insights to the process, for each project GSA relies on an advisory panel, and that advisory panel is composed of local and national art experts, the project’s lead architect, our federal clients for the project and then community representatives and other GSA staff. So they assist in the commissioning process. GSA picks the panel members, then panel members review the artists portfolio recommendations to whittle it down to a small pool of finalists, and then GSA evaluates these finalists and awards the commission to the strongest candidate to develop the design concept. And the panel and review within the artist concept, once approved, the artwork is fabricated and installed as part of the rest of the construction process.

Tom Temin: And some of these are fabricated or they’re painted right on site, I guess, if it’s on the wall permanently, like a mural?

Andrea O’Neal: Some of them could be. Many of them are designed off site and then installed permanently. And then it’s also important to note that GSA and our fine arts team are then responsible for the upkeep of that art that stays in the building.

Tom Temin: Sure, and you’re the equity advisor. And this is a topic that everybody’s talking about across the government these days. And so I’m presuming that you want to make sure that every possible worthy artist, regardless of background, is eligible and feels like they can compete fairly for the placement of art. Is that a fair way to put it?

Andrea O’Neal: Exactly. And that’s what the rule is really hoping to do, is both expand the size of the National Artist Registry, the diversity of the National Artist Registry. And by design for us making this rule and submitting it for public comment in the federal registry over the next 60 days from submission, the public will have a chance to have a more thoughtful and meaningful and robust conversation about what public art means and how rulemaking around public art should be considered. So we’re really inviting more people to the conversation, more artists to be considered, and signaling that diversity, equity, inclusion, accessibility, as one of the president’s main agenda items and priority policies, extends to art in our federal buildings as well.

Tom Temin: And there must be some restrictions or some metrics for art suitable for, say, a public Federal Building, as opposed to what might be considered allowable for a museum, because a lot of modern art depicts things that are done in an offensive way. And that’s the way it is with art. You love it or hate it, or it might offend you. But that doesn’t mean it’s not artistic. But on the other hand, for a publicly funded building, or a place where the public might have to go like a post office or something, which is, I realized, not GSA, but do you have any limitations then on subject matter that could nevertheless still meet the goals that you outlined for, you know, diversity and inclusion?

Andrea O’Neal: Sure. I like to differentiate between artists and you know, joining the national registry for consideration, and the commissions process itself. So every artist of every style is invited to join the National Artist Registry. During that process, again, the National Artist Registry will have outreach to artists for specific interests to be considered for commissions. That is also a process. By the way, I wanted to mention that to be considered for a commission, you do not have to be part of the national artists registry. It is simply a mechanism to streamline communications and keep an update about what’s going on with potential commission opportunities. The process itself for procuring art is actually done through And those notifications for the commission themselves are coming through And when it comes to the style of artists, you mentioned, a lot of the final commission and the direction of the art or the aesthetic will be defined by the panel as we mentioned before, and the federal agency client. That the client is, you know, our customer, the agency that’s going to be inhabiting that workplace or courthouse as an example, we’ll think about the architecture of the building, the fixtures, the design, the aesthetic, and ultimately, also the art. So we take those preferences, and merge them with the needs of the space of the input from local community, and then we come up with the best direction for that art piece. So it is a collective effort. And hopefully one that is the most representative of the stakeholders for that space and community

Tom Temin: And generally, how permanent are these things considered, especially say something like a painting inside, but I guess it could apply to anything because you wouldn’t want to have, you know, one administration come and smear out the thing that was put in last year, and then in four years, somebody else comes in and paints that out. I mean, there is some value to having, even if it’s provocative, to have it there for the sustainment of, I don’t know, maybe people’s perception of the permanence and stability of the government.

Andrea O’Neal: When we say permanent, we mean permanent. These conditions are considered part of the architectural integrity of the building. And those pieces stay with the building through the building’s lifecycle.

Tom Temin: Got it. And by the way, what happens if something gets damaged and the artist is no longer available? Does that ever happen, a leak or something?

Andrea O’Neal: That I’m not sure of. I can ask. But again, the feeding and watering, if you will, of the art is the responsibility of GSA in our fine arts.

Tom Temin: Well, you can always call the Vatican — they know how to fix things, they do it all the time. And with respect to what it is that you’re presenting in terms of the diversity and equity imperative that is extant now, do you find that a committee is able to agree on something? And yet, you can only show one thing in a painting; you can’t show everything in a community. And something that’s inside, say, a downtown St. Louis building is going to have people from every walk of life, every race, color, creed, and so forth. And so how does the committee end up with something that will appeal to everyone, but just by nature of the fact that it’s a single piece of art, can’t look like everyone?

Andrea O’Neal: Right. Well, that’s why we need to commission more art, right? So there is a broader representation. But generally speaking, you know, the direction and aesthetic of the art could, you know, speak to certain community members, but more generally, it could speak to the relevance of the location or simply depicting conceptual or realistic moments in American life. Part of the art on our walls and our federal buildings is also meant to celebrate the trajectory of America and the rich tapestry of American experience. Hopefully, everyone will resonate with again, these are, these are really big pieces, right? You’re standing at the foot of a building or in front of a public sculpture, and you just kind of see the scale and know that this was built with a collaboration of public servants with public dollars, and hopefully that serves people to be excited about what their government can do in their community.

Tom Temin: Andrea O’Neal is senior advisor to the administrator for equity at the General Services Administration. Thanks so much for joining me.

Andrea O’Neal: Thank you so much.

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