To commission artwork for federal buildings, Jennifer Gibson begins at the beginning.
Photo by Mckenzie Lock.
It’s a little after noon at the Ronald Reagan Building on Pennsylvania Avenue, and a belly dancer has just taken the stage. This is standard fare for the breezy plaza outside the building, where often there is free entertainment during lunch. A large crowd has gathered at this busy hub in downtown Washington, D.C., and there’s a long line at the outdoor cafe.
Directly behind the small stage a tall, solemn copper sculpture rises out of the concrete. It is narrow at the bottom and grows in width and depth as it rises. This particular work of art, Martin Puryear’s “Bearing Witness,” is integrated into the very architecture of the federal building.
“I never thought I’d see these dancers next to Martin Puryear,” says Jennifer Gibson (MA, Art History ’77, PhD ’85). For her the image has special significance because it is her job, as an official with the Art in Architecture program within the General Services Administration (GSA), to commission artwork for federal buildings.
Gibson did not commission this particular piece, but she has overseen many other projects across the country, from new courthouses to her own agency’s F Street headquarters, still in the early stages of development.
“As soon as we know there’s going to be a new building and the architect is selected, we start up,” she says, settling at a table under another federally commissioned work, a pair of cast-aluminum flowers by Stephen Robin. “We try to bring the artist in very early and not just say, ‘OK, there’s your spot.’”
The Art in Architecture program makes an earnest effort to do just what its name implies. One half of one percent of the estimated construction budget for a new federal structure goes toward commissioning artwork that will be tightly woven into the greater architectural vision for the building. In its mission statement, the program even begins to sound distinctly Jeffersonian: “Such public statements of American culture,” one sentence reads, “are meaningful contributors to the vibrancy of our democracy.”
Still, the process of making that happen is a complex one that must reconcile an artist’s own fervent creativity with the necessary bureaucracy. This is where Gibson comes in. There is a complex vetting process for choosing artists and approving their designs that involves scores of officials, community members and experts, and through that process she makes sure everyone is happy.
“The cast of characters is enormous,” Gibson says. “When I’m talking to the artist I have to represent the best interests of the government. And when I turn around and talk to the cast of zillions, I have to represent the artist.”
It is during this process, Gibson says, where it is most useful to be trained as an art historian, so she can communicate intelligently with the artist but be capable also of articulating that viewpoint to other officials.
“I quickly learned not to use art history jargon,” she says. “Saying ‘juxtaposed’ never works.”
Long before that process begins, though, an artist must be chosen, and this is where Gibson does most of her work. A panel made up of local representatives and an official from the agency that will occupy the new building, among others, weighs a lot of options and considers many possibilities before landing on a selection.
Here, again, her training is important. “I’m looking at modern artists and seeing their work as part of a long tradition” of civic art, she says.
This doesn’t mean what ultimately is produced is confined to a classical form, however. One of Gibson’s favorite pieces, in fact, at a courthouse in Wheeling, W.Va., is anything but passé and is a good representation of how civic art incorporates many thematic and local influences into its design.
In studying the community and working with the architect, the artist, Mikyoung Kim, discovered two elements important to Wheeling’s economy: a river and the glass industry. What she ultimately produced was a pair of austere glass panels containing fiber-optic cables programmed to exhibit various color harmonies at different times of day, a work she called “River of Light.” The GSA ultimately bestowed its 2004 award for best artwork on Kim for the work.
Behind that and other works, it is Gibson who guides that vision while keeping the cast of thousands involved — at times a Herculean task. “I think,” she says, “that I should have done some graduate work in psychology.”