The new Fine Arts Commission is sworn in, chaired by Billie Tsien


For the first time in 111 years of history, the Commission on Fine Arts (CFA) in Washington, DC, has a female chairman.

The commission voted at its monthly meeting on Thursday, June 17 to make architect Billie Tsien its new president and Howard University educator Hazel Ruth Edwards vice-president, with immediate effect.

Tsien and Edwards are two of four new members who were sworn in to serve on the seven-member panel after President Joe Biden appointed them in May. They replaced four commissioners appointed by former President Donald Trump, including Steven Spandle, Chas Fagan, Perry Guillot and Justin Shubow, whom Tsien replaced as president. Others named by Biden included designers Peter Cook and Justin Garrett Moore.

“It’s an unusual day,” commission secretary Thomas Luebke said at the start of the meeting. “We have had women who have served as vice president, but you would be the first female president, so congratulations,” he told Tsien, founding partner of Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects in New York and chairman. from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Billie Tsien is sworn in (courtesy of the Commission des Beaux-Arts)

The other members are Rodney Mims Cook Jr., Duncan Stroik and James McCrery. McCrery appointed Cook as president. All the new commissioners voted in favor of Tsien, including Tsien herself.

The CFA is an independent federal agency tasked with providing expert advice to the President, Congress, and the Federal and District of Columbia governments on matters of design and aesthetics as they affect the federal interest and preserve the dignity of the national capital. Tsien is the 12e chairman in the history of the commission.

After being named chair, Tsien chaired the remainder of the meeting, which took place virtually and included reviews of several key projects in Washington. Visible on the screen behind her was a large wall hanging by the Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui which she and Williams bought 20 years ago.

The agenda included the small-scale renovation plans, led by EYP-Loring LLC. for the Smithsonian Institution Building (also known as the “Castle”), the Smithsonian Institution’s Arts & Industries Building, the rehabilitation of the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Memorial, a 10-story building for the US Department of Homeland Security, and plans to transform the old Newseum building at 555 Pennsylvania Avenue into a new home for Johns Hopkins University graduate programs. Panel members also approved a request to add Ashley Robbins Wilson to the Old Georgetown board, which is reviewing plans for projects in the Georgetown section of Washington, DC.

Tsien was quick to give his opinion on the projects under consideration, calling the stone wedges proposed on the Hopkins project “delicious”. Several commissioners noted that Hopkins architect Ennead was essentially redesigning a building the same company had previously designed when it was called Polshek Partnership and the Newseum was the client. “Jim would be proud,” Tsien said, referring to founding partner James Polshek, praising Billy Erhard’s presentation from Ennead. The project received final approval.

Tsien also expressed skepticism about the Smithsonian’s plan to use glass to clad a proposed roof element for the Arts & Industries building, dubbed “the niche”. Glass is never as transparent as people think, she warned presenters, suggesting they hedge their bets and consider other materials.

A veteran of many public presentations, Tsien seemed to master the job right away, although she accepted Luebke’s advice.

At the end of the meeting, Tsien expressed his satisfaction in an email message with the way it went. “I felt encouraged by the positive and civil discussion we had as a Commission,” she said.

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