Ellsworth Kelly, “The Boston Panels” (1998), commissioned through the Art in Architecture Program. (photo by Steve Rosenthal © Historic New England, from the Steve Rosenthal Collection of Commissioned Work at Historic New England; via GSA)

Twenty-one distinctly colored panels adorn the vast walls of Boston’s John Moakley Courthouse. Commissioned in 1998 by the General Services Administration (GSA) Art in Architecture program, Ellsworth Kelly’s “The Boston Panels” — which function as a guide through the courthouse’s dramatic architectural space — would not have been authorized under a Trump-era executive order that restricted the style of artworks displayed in federal buildings. Last week, the Biden administration revoked the order, reversing Trump’s rule that the Art in Architecture program’s commissions must depict prominent American historical figures, events, and “ideals upon which our nation was founded.”

The administration’s recent actions follow President Biden’s executive order issued last May, which rescinded several of the former president’s actions. This included an order to protect American monuments and statues, which Trump signed at the height of Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, when the country was reckoning with the prominence of monuments in tribute to Confederate leaders and other controversial American figures. Another,  the “Make Federal Buildings Beautiful Again” measure, promoted a neoclassical architectural style for federal buildings, deeming common modernist and brutalist styles “uninspiring” and “undistinguished.”

For the GSA, which is approaching its 50-year anniversary, these revocations represent a step toward greater equity and representation, especially concerning the artists on the National Art Registry

“The senior advisors are aligned with different policy priorities that the Biden administration has laid out since day one. This includes considerations around diversity, equity, and accessibility,” Andrea M. O’Neal, GSA’s senior advisor to the administrator on equity, told Hyperallergic. “The government-wide effort to reduce and resolve disparities, address systemic barriers, advance opportunity, and improve economic security is aligned with the Biden-Harris agenda and the Art in Architecture’s mission is aligned with these policy objectives.”

In light of the reversals, the Art in Architecture program is also advancing efforts toward diversity and inclusion via a new initiative to collect self-reported demographic information of artists on the registry, and artists across backgrounds are encouraged to sign up. 

“This administration and GSA’s priority is to ensure the broadest possible spectrum of American artists involved in the program. We are looking at the types of artists who can be considered for commissions, and we want that funnel to be as wide as possible,” O’Neal said. “Hopefully this starts a new conversation about the public’s relationship to the federal buildings in their community.” 

In a statement released January 31 announcing updates to its provisions regarding artworks in federal spaces, the GSA noted that Trump’s executive order had precluded many artists working in contemporary art styles, decreeing that works depicting “a historically significant American” must be “lifelike or realistic” representations, not abstract or modern. The recent reversals aim to include artists working across visual languages by expanding the styles eligible for commission. 

Biden’s reversal of Trump’s highly-criticized arts policies come as the current administration faces backlash over its work in other sectors. These include long delayed progress on border and immigration policy and a recent controversial move to freeze and reallocate $7 billion in assets belonging to the Afghanistan Central Bank in the midst of a rapidly escalating political and economic crisis in the region. For some, the reversals of Trump-era arts legislation may read as symbolic at best. 

Still, some believe that the undoing of the former president’s federal arts restrictions could result in material gains for a wider community of artists. “The expanded range of art commissions at federal buildings across the country as a result of this effort will be significant,” Dr. Maria Rosario Jackson, chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, told Hyperallergic.

Managed by the Fine Arts Program, the GSA’s public art collection consists of work dating as early as the 1850s, and is one of the nation’s oldest and largest. The program’s predecessor, the Federal Art Project, originated as a New Deal-era initiative to stimulate economic recovery by paying artists to produce works across artistic mediums. Since its founding in 1972, the Art in Architecture program has commissioned over 500 artworks, and continues to preserve the works of prominent American artists including Catherine Opie and Romare Bearden

Now that Trump’s order has been revoked, the GSA aims to stand by its abiding mission of inclusion. 

“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,” GSA Administrator Robin Carnahan said in the statement. 

Sarah Derris is a writer, filmmaker, and visual artist based in New York. Her films have screened in Los Angeles, Kunshan, China, and Durham, NC, and she is primarily interested in examining the potentiality...