In a truly exciting appointment, President Trump has placed one of the nation’s most talented advocates for beauty on the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts. Justin Shubow, who heads and will continue at the National Civic Art Society during his official tenure, brings to the commission’s deliberations a refined eye for artistic revival in the nation’s capital, and that will include architecture. Maybe he can stop the Dwight D. Gerhy carbuncle.
Yes! Make America Beautiful Again!
Maybe it is too much to expect Shubow, from his one seat on the seven-member commission, to do what the president could and should have done with a flick of his finger before the project broke ground last fall. On the other hand, Shubow may now be better placed to argue that the federal government should contribute hundreds of millions of federal dollars to the renovation of Pennsylvania Station only if the project is shifted to reflect the original 1910 design by Charles Follen McKim. That’s in New York City, of course, which is outside the boundaries of the commission’s authority. But Shubow has an even bigger policy voice now, and good policy is a very fungible jurisdiction.
Both the memorial to Ike and Penn Station projects have been taken up by the National Civic Art Society.
Before Shubow arrived at the NCAS back in 2011, it had sponsored a design competition for an alternative to the Ike memorial proposed by Gehry. Soon after he took over at the NCAS, he wrote a long paper against Gehry’s proposal called “The Gehry Towers Over Eisenhower.” Between these two events, I met Justin at a coffee shop across the street from where my father once worked at the federal Office of Management and Budget. Justin struck me as very bright, even philosophical.
Indeed, Shubow’s high energy and high mindedness transformed the group’s opposition to the Gehry design into a publicity steamroller that garnered constant media attention, drove the modernists nuts, and, partly through his testimony there, persuaded Congress to throw its weight behind blocking the Gehry design. And the society would’ve succeeded, I believe, if the Eisenhower family, long united in opposition, had not turned coat against their paterfamilias in favor of a monument to Gehry.
Allan Greenberg, who designed the diplomatic reception rooms at the U.S. Department of State, said of Shubow’s leadership: “When the National Civic Art Society began its Eisenhower Memorial fight, it was like Hans Brinker plugging a dyke all by himself with one finger. Now the National Civic Art Society is well on its way to becoming a Washington powerhouse.”
The Fine Arts Commission, an independent federal agency, was established in 1910. J. Carter Brown, scion of Providence’s leading family of merchants (yes, Brown University), served as its chairman for 31 years, from 1971 to 2002, years during which the commission’s unseemly dedication to modern architecture did much to edge classical beauty out of favor in Washington’s monumental core. Thereafter, the commission’s rulings continued get under my skin. Its insufficient ardor for art was on full display in the strange case of Gehry v. Eisenhower. Shubow is sure to take a different tack.
In bending the arc of art in the proper direction, Shubow has his work cut out for him. But if anyone can do it I am sure he can. Congratulations, Justin! The world of classical architecture, allied with the intergalactic universe of beauty, will be pulling for you.
While the classicist in me is happy to see Justin Shubow get an official position the social person in me is concerned about the politicization of classicism. The present administration takes many positions that are socially regressive and this plays into the modernist canard that the classical represents another form of such regression [or repression]. This contributes to a ‘war of the styles’ rhetoric that I feel it is important to avoid if the classical idea is to make genuine progress.