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Sweet: Kennedy and Streep spouses to help screen Obama Center architect

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WASHINGTON – The team advising the Barack Obama Foundation on the selection of an architect for the Obama Center includes the husbands of Caroline Kennedy and Meryl Streep – a designer and a sculptor — with Chicagoans Fred Eychaner and Bob Clark also centrally involved, the Sun-Times has learned.

Known as the Design Advisory Team, the group is helping evaluate proposals from architects for the sought-after commission, with seven firms selected as finalists last December.

The team numbers about 10, and what they have in common is architectural and design expertise and the trust of President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle. The team visited the two proposed locations — Jackson and Washington parks on the South Side — and met with each of the U.S. architects who made the cut. The first couple will also be interviewing the finalists.

A foundation spokesman told me in a statement, “The Foundation worked closely with a group of talented and experienced advisers trusted by the president and First Lady and evaluated over 140 responses to the RFQ released in August.

“Based upon highly selective criteria identified by experts in design and architecture, the foundation and its advisers presented their recommendations to the president and first lady. All of the selected firms have a position of eminence within the architecture profession and have achieved some degree of public recognition.”

OPINION

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The Obama Center will house a museum, library and foundation offices. The bid documents reveal the Obamas want the structure to reflect, among many other things, “a spirit of optimism and hope” while “emotionally” resonating with visitors and the surrounding community and those who will gather for “reflection, exploration, learning and conversation.”

Among those helping the foundation and the Obamas are, according to multiple sources:

  • Edward Schlossberg, the founder, president and principal designer of ESI Design and the husband of Caroline Kennedy, the U.S. Ambassador to Japan. Obama appointed Schlossberg to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts.

  • Don Gummer, a noted sculptor whose large outdoor works are in steel, stone, bronze and marble. He is the husband of actress Meryl Streep. When Obama awarded Streep the Medal of Freedom in November, 2014, he said, “I love Meryl Streep. I love her. Her husband knows I love her. Michelle knows I love her. There’s nothing either of them can do about it.”

  • Bob Clark, the CEO of Clayco, a national building firm headquartered in Chicago, appointed by Obama to the Committee for the Preservation of the White House.

  • Fred Eychaner, the board chairman of Newsweb Corp. and a major contributor to the Obama foundation, giving between $500,000 and $1 million, according to a 2015 foundation disclosure. Eychaner has a deep interest in architecture; his Lincoln Park home is designed by the renowned Japanese architect Tadao Ando. Eychaner’s Alphawood Foundation pledged $10 million to help restore and preserve Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple in Oak Park.

  • Theaster Gates, an artist and professor in the Department of Visual Art and Director of Arts and Public Life at the University of Chicago. He is known for transforming urban spaces through art, with one recent notable work the Arts Bank, 6760 S. Stony Island Ave.

  • Christine Forester, an architect who works at the “intersection of business, marketing and design.” She is one of Obama’s earliest donors and fundraisers, going back to his days as an Illinois senator. Obama named her to the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities.

  • Margaret Russell, the editor-in-chief of Architectural Digest. In 2013, Obama tapped her to be a trustee of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

  • Interior designer Michael Smith, who helped redecorate the Obama White House residence. He is also on the Committee for the Preservation of the White House.

  • Kathryn Chenault, an attorney and the wife of Kenneth Chenault, the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of American Express Company. Obama appointed Mr. Chenault to be on his Council on Jobs and Competitiveness. He is also on the Smithsonian Institution’s Advisory Council for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, currently under construction in Washington.

Also helping to think through the Obama Center is Oprah Winfrey. She is also deeply involved in the African-American museum, donating at least $13 million.

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