Mayor Muriel Bowser
Mayor Muriel Bowser Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Mayor Muriel Bowser is 0 for 2 this week, and it’s only Wednesday.

On Tuesday, the D.C. Council easily dispensed with Bowser’s third-ever veto, holding no discussion on the dais ahead of a unanimous vote. The mayor had rejected an emergency bill that clarifies the D.C. Commission on Arts and the Humanities’ (DCCAH) independence.

The bill, which also passed unanimously last month, backdated the commission’s independence from the mayor’s office to July 22, rather than Oct. 1. The underlying legislation cemented DCCAH’s separation from the executive’s office after a tumultuous summer during which the mayor tried and failed to grab control of the District’s public arts.

On Monday, Attorney General Karl Racine‘soffice handed Bowser an even bigger blow with a legal memo that says the mayor’s attempt to take over the commission’s activities, including her seizure of the art in the commission’s keep, is against District law.

The memo, written by Deputy Attorney General Brian Flowers and addressed to Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, voids a provision in Bowser’s order creating the Office of Creative Affairs within the Office of Cable Television, Film, Music, and Entertainment (OCTFME).

That order gave the new office control of the city’s public art vault, and in September, Bowser’s office changed the locks, stripping control from DCCAH, the longtime steward of the collection. Since then, arts commission staff responsible for the care and placement of the more than 3,000 artworks in the city’s art bank have had to ask for permission from staff at OCTFME to access the vault. OCTFME is led by Angie Gates, a close friend and ally of Bowser’s, and, briefly, the director of DCCAH, until a censorship scandal forced Gates to step down.

Flowers’s memo further states that “it is beyond the scope of the Mayor’s authority to continue to exercise control of the Art Bank or interpose other executive branch officials to supervise or regulate the exercise of CAH’s functions.” The mayor still has authority over the commission through the appointment and removal of its commissioners.

“We got art bank back!” reads an enthusiastic email from Kay Kendall, the chair of the commission’s board, to fellow arts commissioners.

But it appears as if Bowser may not abide by the AG’s opinion. An emailed statement from the mayor’s office says: “We are on solid legal ground. Residents and visitors can enjoy the art on display at government agencies and buildings, and they will continue to be able to do so.”

The vote and the AG’s legal opinion mark the latest victories for Mendelson and the arts commission in the tug-of-war over public arts in D.C.

Asked for his thoughts on the AG’s opinion, Mendelson couldn’t contain his I-told-you-so’s.

“It confirms what I suspected all along,” he says, “that it was an overreach to take the art away from the arts commission.”

Mendelson acknowledges that the arts scuffle has tarnished his relationship with the mayor but, in his view, she started it.

“I’m not the one picking these fights,” he says. “I am concerned about the relationship with the mayor, but she chose to veto a bill that was adopted unanimously by the Council. It shouldn’t be a surprise that the Council would override her.”

The conflict started back in May, when the mayor proposed converting millions in art commission grants into loans, prompting an outcry from artists and leading the Council to pass a bill to shore up the commission’s independence.

Since the summer, the mayor’s tête-à-tête with the arts commission has spiraled wider and wider. Bowser briefly canceled the 34th Annual Mayor’s Art Awards, a long-running program under DCCAH, before relaunching it as an Office of Creative Affairs initiative.

Bowser was still determined to do something about the arts this week. Shortly before 5 p.m. Tuesday afternoon, the mayor sent an email invitation to this year’s ceremony.

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