Administrator Carnahan Remarks as Prepared at the National Gallery of Art Showcase
On behalf of the General Services Administration which oversees federal spaces around the country, I want to welcome everyone to the Wilbur J. Cohen Federal Building. I’m happy to be here to shine a spotlight on our nation’s public art collection and this extraordinary piece by Philip Guston. It’s great to be with the artist’s daughter, Musa Mayer. As many folks know, Musa wrote a compelling memoir of her father’s life and, ten years ago, she established The Guston Foundation to preserve his legacy. Musa - Thank you for helping us more deeply understand your father and his work.
I also want to thank Harry Cooper of the National Gallery of Art for making tonight’s collaboration possible. And I know that Dr. Stephanie Scott and Patricia Loiko of the National Endowment for the Arts are here as well – we’re excited to continue our partnership with them and bring our Art in Architecture commission opportunities to a broader audience of American artists.
Fundamentally, all of us at GSA - and throughout the Biden-Harris Administration - believe that public art is for the people – all the people. That’s why we’ve taken steps to ensure that it reflects the range of diversity and creativity that strengthens and inspires Americans every day.
It’s our job to not only preserve important works like these, but also to welcome and encourage new artists to contribute.
But, let’s back up for a minute. At events like this, it’s important to remember why - as a country - we feel so strongly about the importance of public art.
GSA’s portfolio provides a window into that. It stretches back to the oldest piece in our portfolio - an 1856 marble carving called “Fidelity, Electricity, and Steam” - which is a representation of the early U.S. postal service…
But the era that seemed to really solidified our nation’s commitment to public art dates back to FDR and the New Deal.
As you might remember, President Roosevelt established four distinct programs to support American artists and make art more accessible. Today, GSA helps steward that art and this New Deal collection is one of the reasons we now have one of the largest public art collections in the world.
There are connections from the New Deal to Guston.
Guston was born in Montreal in 1913, the youngest of seven children to Russian-Jewish parents who had fled persecution in Europe. He grew up in Los Angeles and attended high school with another famed American artist, Jackson Pollock. In 1935, Guston moved to New York to work at the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal agency.
That same year, FDR passed the Social Security Act and soon this building–where we are tonight–was built to house the Social Security Administration. It was designed by architects Charles Klauder and Louis A. Simon, and it was the first federal building to be built on the south side of the National Mall.
The New Deal’s Section of Fine Art held a competition, resulting in a phenomenal body of work, including the murals by Seymour Fogel and Ben Shahn which you passed on your way in. All of this art is a testament to our country’s commitment to protect some of our most vulnerable citizens.
But there’s an interesting twist to this story. The Social Security Administration never actually occupied this building. Instead, it was commandeered by the War Department during World War II.
And here’s another fun fact, the fresco outside this room is a dry fresco, because Ben Shahn's assistant got drafted and couldn't prepare the wet plaster.
And then, by the time the war ended, the Social Security Administration had grown so much that it was too big for this space.
So, today it houses the Department of Health and Human Services and Voice of America.
Regardless of who occupies the building – our hope is that they find these artworks just as inspiring and relevant to our mission of serving the American people as they were when they were first commissioned.
In 1943 Philip Guston contributed this monumental piece, “Reconstruction and the Wellbeing of the Family.” We’ll hear more from the experts in a moment, but for me, seeing this for the first time, it seems to convey a deep sense of place and time at a unique moment in both Guston’s life and in our nation’s history.
I understand this show of Guston’s work has already been warmly received in Boston and Houston and, after DC, will head to London. So, we’re pleased to be able to support the National Gallery of Art’s efforts and include this piece in the DC show.
It’s a great honor for GSA to be the caretakers of America’s largest public art collection. The diversity and vibrancy of this portfolio reflects the diversity and vibrancy of the American story.
And it’s striking to see how much our values are reflected back in the art.
I was told that back in 1970, that the artist Willem de Kooning, one of Guston’s contemporaries, told him that the real subject of his art was - in fact - freedom. And that Guston agreed, saying freedom was the only possession an artist has – the “freedom to do whatever you can imagine.”
Preserving that artistic freedom and diversity of thought is a core value of our Art in Architecture program. This year, that program is celebrating its 50th anniversary. And we’re more committed than ever to expanding opportunities to a broader array of artists and ensuring our collection continues to reflect the diversity of our country.
As some of you may know, we set aside one half of one percent of our building projects for art. That includes everything from the new courthouse that we just opened in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania - to our land ports of entry along our borders.
We want to make sure every federal space serves to enrich the community it inhabits. We’re happy to have one of those artists here tonight. Odili Donald Odita, can you please stand up and give a wave?
Odili received a commission for the George C. Young Courthouse in Orlando, Florida. He created a vibrant piece called “Infinite Horizon” that captured “the idea of the Court’s purpose, which is to settle bankruptcy matters and…to give hope for new horizons.”
Thank you Odili, for your inspiration. And we look forward to building on your example in public spaces around the country.
In order to do that, there is something we need from you…We need more artists to sign up to be part of GSA’s Artist Registry. The registry is our first stop in soliciting commissions and we’re eager to expand beyond the current list of about 1,500 artists because we know there are many more gifted American artists who are ready to unleash their talents, lift our spirits, bring us joy, make us think, and strengthen our communities.
As President Biden often says, our country is made up of possibilities and nothing is beyond our reach if we remember who we are and work together. When you look across the history of the GSA fine arts collection, you see who we are as a country and who we want to be.
These artworks showcase our culture and our spirit: some are aspirational, some are critical, some remind us of our history, and some imagine who we can become. And our nation, indivisible yet diverse and complex, can accomplish so much when we work together.
And I hope all of us remember as we look at the figures in this Guston piece that we are all artists in our own ways, contributing our gifts, and ensuring a more secure and prosperous future for coming generations.