News & Politics

This Sculpture: $1 Million. Buyer: You.

Each new federal building gets its own artwork, paid for by taxpayers. Not everyone agrees on what kinds of pieces should be commissioned—or that the government should be in the business of buying art at all.

Bill Caine is at the Hirshhorn Museum admiring the work of one of his discoveries. Pae White, a Los Angeles–based multimedia artist, has decorated some of the museum’s window walls with a sort of plastic-wrap material in red and yellow.

For Caine, the pattern suggests dragonfly wings, which remind him of Fourth of July picnics and summer vacations. He finds White’s work joyful and not particularly alarming—just the kind of art he is looking for.

As a fine-art specialist at the General Services Administration, Caine is charged with finding artists capable of creating masterpieces for new federal buildings. After following Pae White’s work in magazines, he invited her to send him slides of her creations so she could be considered for federal commissions.

Last year, after being recommended by Caine, White won a $165,000 commission to create artwork for the Anthony J. Celebrezze Federal Building in Cleveland. She’s creating a red screen for the building that will be similar to her window art on exhibit at the Hirshhorn through July.

For Caine, who talks about artwork the way others might rave about their favorite new restaurant, the goal of artwork commissioned for federal buildings is to celebrate American artists and artwork.

Caine tends to favor artists who create comforting or joyful designs like White’s. Six years ago, he was drawn to a rising young Portland-based artist, Sean Healy, for a new federal courthouse in Eugene, Oregon, because his photo collages were reminiscent of happy childhood days.

“I thought it would give a personal connection to people,” says Caine, “because a courthouse can be a potentially scary place where heavy personal dramas are played out.” Last year, Healy installed his work, “Jury Pool,” in the new courthouse. It’s made of colorful stained-glass discs etched with the faces of random people the artist interviewed, along with the GPS coordinates of their favorite places in the state.

Each new federal building gets its own artwork, which is commissioned with usually half a percent of the building’s construction budget and ranges between $25,000 and $800,000. Most of the commission money goes toward materials and installation; the artist typically receives 20 percent of the money.

The Kennedy administration created the art-in-architecture program in 1963 as a way of recognizing and promoting American artists, back when American-style individualism was seen as a rallying cry against Communism.

Funding for art had received a similar boost 30 years earlier, when President Roosevelt created projects for artists as part of his New Deal to boost the country’s economy during the Depression.

New Deal programs hired thousands of artists who created murals, sculptures, and an index of American design dating back to Colonial times. Like the GSA’s program, the projects sought to promote American art and to teach the public about art.

Caine’s job is to identify the top American visual artists today. As a youth, Caine hung a copy of Rembrandt’s “The Mill” in his bedroom and penned cartoons for his paper at Wootton High School in Rockville. “In kindergarten, I was always the kid drawing with crayons,” he says. He never wanted to be an artist himself, but knew he wanted to work with art.

He studied Renaissance and Baroque art at the University of Maryland. And at age 25, while writing his master’s thesis on the political uses of images of the Immaculate Conception, he started working for the General Services Administration’s Boston office as a fine-art and historic-preservation specialist. The job kept him so busy that he gave up on his thesis.

“He’s sharp and has a rich historical background,” says Molly Donovan, associate curator of modern and contemporary art at the National Gallery of Art. “He is focused on the Renaissance and draws on that a lot in his thinking about contemporary art.”

To keep up with the contemporary-art world, Caine keeps in touch with galleries and artists around the country. Stacks of white binders filled with submissions from some of the 3,000 artists fill office closets at GSA’s headquarters in downtown DC.

Once he finds artists he likes, he presents a slide show of their work to a selection panel that includes the architect for the new building, some people who will work there, and art “peers” or experts. Caine and the art experts on the panel often try to steer the debate. Judges, for example, may envision allegorical figures holding the scales of justice or men on horseback to adorn their future courthouse. “Those notions do not often relate to the way contemporary artists are working today,” says Donovan, a panel member.

After narrowing the field, the panel makes the final decision through a vote.

“You have to align the stars just right,” says Cheryl Numark, director of the now-closed Numark Gallery, who says Caine’s forte is visualizing an artist’s work on a grander scale. She’s lobbied him on behalf of several artists. Two who exhibited at her gallery, Jim Sanborn and Tony Feher, have received commissions from GSA.

Leigh Conner, director of Conner Contemporary Art near DC’s Dupont Circle, says such commissions are great boons to careers, as it was for one of her artists, New York–based Leo Villareal. He is working on a digital-light sculpture for a new federal courthouse in El Paso. “It certainly gave Leo the confidence to move forward with other things he was doing,” Conner says.

Susan Harrison, manager of GSA’s art-in-architecture program and Caine’s boss, says the program offers “a way for the government to participate in the cultural life of the country and for artists to participate in the public life of the government.”

Not everyone believes it’s a proper partnership or that taxpayer dollars should be used to fund art.

“Art is like religion,” says Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform. “The government shouldn’t be involved in it, not because it isn’t important, because it is important. When the government starts subsidizing one kind of art, or one kind of religion, and decides what’s right and what’s wrong, that’s not the government’s business.”

He says that if federal buildings need artwork, local art associations should raise the money.

Pete Sepp of the National Taxpayers Union agrees, saying, “Most taxpayers would rather pay admission for museums to view art than see costly works add to the price of buildings they’ve already paid for.” If the government does buy art, he adds, then it should be “modest and comfortable, not bizarre and luxurious.”

Some might put a few local projects in the latter category. The Ronald Reagan Building in downtown DC is home to three GSA commissions, all of which predate Caine’s tenure. The priciest is a $1-million sculpture, “Bearing Witness,” by Washington native Martin Puryear. It bears some resemblance to a giant baseball bat.

To Caine’s eye, it watches over visitors like a sentinel and “draws you over here, across the plaza.” But that positive pull is not universally felt. “It’s awful. I don’t know what it means,” says Eileen Foust, a passerby from Vienna, Virginia.

The soft-spoken Caine, 35, takes the criticism in stride. “It’s impossible for one work of art to be pleasing to everyone,” he says. “And if it was pleasing to everyone, I think it would be banal and lifeless and easy to ignore.”

In fact, commissions often provoke debate if not protest. The most controversial commission in the GSA’s history did not involve nudity or religion but a steel wall. In 1979, GSA commissioned a curving, wall-like sculpture by San Francisco–born artist Richard Serra for Manhattan’s Federal Plaza. Soon after it was installed, the agency began receiving complaints from employees who worked there and didn’t like having to walk around the large structure to cross the plaza. A federal judge began a campaign to get the sculpture removed.

Caine attributes the complaints, in part, to the sculpture’s rusty patina, which people associated with urban decay. Despite the artist’s protests, the $175,000 sculpture was taken down in 1987 and carted off to a scrap-metal yard.

Alice Aycock says her commission for Baltimore’s George H. Fallon Federal Building, which was based partly on the courtship patterns of hummingbirds, was delayed for six years because some members of the community objected.

The sculpture, which eventually went up in 2004, wraps around the front entrance of the building almost like a roller coaster. GSA says the delay was caused by building renovations and slow funding.

Two cast-aluminum flowers, created by Philadelphia artist Stephen Robin in 1998 for $300,000, bloom across from Puryear’s batlike sculpture outside the Reagan Building. “It looks like hotel-room decor,” says Moira Tarpy, 28, a George Washington University employee. “It’s not offensive, but it doesn’t really grab your attention.”

The building’s third commission was installed in the main hall past the security gates. New York artist Keith Sonnier’s “Route Zenith” features red, blue, and yellow neon tubes and was commissioned for $700,000. Caine says it’s reminiscent of the colors in the work of Dutch painter Piet Mondrian.

Mark Oxman, director of American University’s sculpture program, parts company with Caine on the success of the neon piece, saying it is part of a “certain tradition that’s passé” and thus belongs in a museum as opposed to a federal building.

Public art, Oxman says, should be beautiful, uplifting, and in vogue forever, like Italy’s famous fountains and sculptures: “It can’t stop speaking to you—the tenth time you see it, the 100th time, and forever.” The Puryear sculpture, he acknowledges, might achieve such lasting appreciation. He calls it “head and shoulders” above other contemporary sculptures.

Beautiful or not, frequent users of the Reagan Building have found one way to make use of the giant sculpture.

Carolyn McDonald, who works at the Environmental Protection Agency, which is headquartered next to the building, says she and her friends use the sculpture, which to them looks more like a giant thumb than a shoe, as a meeting place. They tell each other, “I’ll meet you at the thumb.”

What You’ve Bought

The government has commissioned works of art for $3,000 to $1 million to adorn federal buildings. Here’s a look at art commissioned by the GSA that can be seen around this area and the price tag for each.


“She Who Must Be Obeyed,” painted aluminum structure by Tony Smith, 1976; Frances Perkins Building; $98,000

“The History of Labor in America,” oil-on-canvas murals by Jack Beal, 1977; Frances Perkins Building; $150,000

“Bearing Witness,” bronze sculpture by Martin Puryear, 1998; Ronald Reagan Building; $1 million

“Federal Triangle Flowers,” aluminum sculptures by Stephen Robin, 1998; Ronald Reagan Building; $300,000

“Route Zenith,” neon sculpture by Keith Sonnier, 1998; Ronald Reagan Building; $700,000

“Evolutionary Notes to WK,” wool tapestry by Annette Kaplan, 1976; Hubert Humphrey Building; $7,000

“Floating,” tapestry by Marcel Breuer, 1977; Hubert Humphrey Building; $21,000

“48 Shadow Panels,” mixed-media installation by Robert Irwin, 1983; Old Post Office Building; $84,600

“Boundary Markers,” concrete sculpture by Raymond Kaskey, 1998; National Building Museum; $167,000

In Maryland

“Baltimore Federal,” painted aluminum sculpture by George Sugarman, 1978; Edward A. Garmatz Federal Building and US Courthouse, Baltimore; $98,000

“Swing Over,” aluminum sculptures by Alice Aycock, 2004; G.H. Fallon Federal Building, Baltimore; $350,000

“Tree I,” stainless-steel-and-wire structure by Kenneth Snelson, 1981; NIH Lister Hill Center, Bethesda; $125,000

“Cenozoic Codex,” neon installation by Keith Sonnier, 1997; Census Computer Facility, Bowie; $145,000

“Baltimore Project,” landscape sculpture installation by Richard Fleischner, 1980; Social Security Computer Center, Woodlawn; $150,000

“Host of the Ellipse,” painted steel sculpture by Ronald Bladen, 1981; Social Security Administration, Baltimore; $150,000

Untitled, stone-and-wire sculpture by Loren Madsen, 1981; Social Security Administration, Baltimore; $125,000

“Indian Run,” bronze sculpture by Jim Sanborn, 1995; Southern Maryland Federal Courthouse, Greenbelt; $170,000

“Vox Populi,” granite-and-marble sculpture by Larry Kirkland, 1997; New Carrollton Federal Building, Lanham; $400,000

“Life in the Community—East 100th Street,” sculptures by John Ahearn and Rigoberto Torres, 1997; Health Care Financing Administration, Woodlawn; $310,000

“For the Love of Life” and “The Healing Light,” oil-on-canvas murals by Daniel Galvez, 1998; Health Care Financing Administration, Woodlawn; $100,000

In Virginia

“Kryptos,” copper-and-granite sculpture by Jim Sanborn, 1990; Central Intelligence Agency, Langley; $250,000

“Harmony Ridge,” aluminum sculpture by Robert Lobe, 1996; US Geological Survey Building, Reston; $34,000

“Justice Delayed, Justice Denied,” bronze sculpture by Raymond Kaskey, 1995; A.V. Bryan Sr. US Courthouse, Alexandria; $283,000