Public sculpture has shaped the American landscape. Since the country’s beginnings, monuments and memorials have conveyed history, morality, and civic pride. Its role as a primarily commemorative medium began to expand in the late twentieth century, when the U.S. government looked to promote American art as a symbol of freedom and creativity during the Cold War. Building on the arts patronage established during President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s, the Kennedy administration inaugurated the Fine Arts Program of the General Services Administration (GSA) in 1962 to commission work by living artists for federal buildings. In 1972, the program began to operate in cooperation with the National Endowment for the Arts, and in 1977 it became the Art in Architecture Program that exists today. The GSA projects reflect contemporary artists’ interests in issues including perception, social space, the natural environment, and cultural identity.

The nine maquettes in this exhibition—many of them considered by the artists to be completed works of art in their own right—were acquired by the Smithsonian American Art Museum between 1977 and 1990. The models offered a concrete vision of the artists’ ideas and served as a way to share them with selection committees, patrons, and communities. Varied in scale, format, and level of finish, these models are windows into the creative process. Sometimes, as with Claes Oldenburg’s Bat Column, they document the artist’s original intention for their work; in other cases, such as Jackie Ferrara’s Model for Carbondale Project, they are the only existing traces of projects that were destroyed or unrealized.