Life Credit: MuralsDC

During a nearly three-hour public call-in meeting on Thursday, the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities (CAH) discussed landmark changes in its operations.

The MuralsDC program, funded by the Department of Public Works (DPW), is suspended for the remainder of the year. Per DPW’s request, all funds for the program have been transferred back to the department with the intention of reinstating the program in 2021. MuralsDC encourages street artists to beautify the District by creating public art, and frequently engages youth in the community. The program has operated since 2007 and developed 89 mural projects across the city.

Since the murals program is funded by DPW, it is an outlier in the Commission’s grant program. All CAH grantees for 2020 will receive their payments, noted CAH treasurer Cicie Sattarnilasskorn. “Some small good news in all of this,” she said during the meeting.

Artists across disciplines are feeling the impact of the public health crisis. D.C. musician Elena Lacayo of the Latin folk bandElena & Los Fulanos emphasizes that since musicians can’t perform during the pandemic, they can’t earn an income. So supporting them is critical.

On top of the losses she’s experiencing due to the lack of gigs, Lacayo says she has still not been awarded the grant she was promised from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities in October 2019. In the past, her award came in January.

Thursday’s CAH meeting was open to the public, and anyone who wanted to speak during the public comment portion was welcome to make arrangements beforehand. Lacayo reached out to express her concern. “I’m calling in with frustration,” she said during her remarks.

“I actually got really scared during this pandemic,” she tells City Paper. “I was afraid that I wasn’t going to get my money at all.”

In the meantime, Lacayo set up a Patreonpage with different monetary amounts of monthly support, each with their own perks like a personalized stop-motion movie and even an original song written just for those who give $30 per month. So far, 14 patrons have pledged $113 per month.

Despite the issues, Lacayo still sees the value of the grant program. “It’s been one of the main reasons I’ve stayed in D.C.,” she says.

To help artists like Lacayo during such an uncertain time, the Commission received $421,300 from the National Endowment for the Arts Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, and will be able to distribute these funds to nonprofit arts organizations with budgets below $250,000 that have previously been CAH grantees. Qualified individuals, regardless of whether or not they have previously received grants from the Commission, are also eligible to receive funds if they meet certain criteria.

“We are in touch with grantees and grantees are letting us know what their needs are,” said the Commission’s acting director Heran Sereke-Brhan during the Thursday meeting, adding that their decisions stem from the “grassroots level.”

For the first time in its history, CAH is voting on how to handle its grants. They are assessing the best approach for distributing the awards and the exact dollar amounts. Thursday’s meeting was a first step in their decision making process, which the Commission is placing on hold until Mayor Bowser presents her fiscal year 2021 budget plan in mid-May.

Their rough plans—which are subject to change as the Commission’s plans evolve—are to distribute 25 percent of the NEA funds to qualified nonprofit arts organizations and the remainder to qualified individuals, all on a first-come, first-served basis. Proposed amounts are $3,000 for arts organizations and $1,500 to $2,500 for individuals. On Thursday, the group debated whether or not nonprofit arts organizations, which typically can employee one or two people, require more funds.

The Commission’s grants team has spent a considerable amount of time over the past month reviewing the grant program and plans to prioritize maintaining its arts and humanities fellowship program and general operating support grant program. 

These programs “are the most valuable,” said David Markey, interim senior grants officer and arts education coordinator for the Commission.

Though the CAH meeting concluded by putting the decisions at a stand still, they did agree on one thing: This was not business as usual.

“How we’ve operated as an arts commission, I promise you, is going to be altered also based on the needs, the budgets, and the disparities and the inequities,” said CAH commissioner Cora Masters Barry as the discussion came to a close. “It will never be the same again.”