After a summer of friction, Mayor Muriel Bowser’s heated conflict with the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities (DCCAH) shows no sign of abating, even as the commission takes its first steps as an independent agency no longer under the mayor’s direct control. On Tuesday, the arts commission will name a new interim director, and earlier this month the D.C. Council passed a legislative fix updating the agency’s independent status.
The new lead, Heran Sereke-Brhan, will be the commission’s fourth director in two years. The former deputy director of the Mayor’s Office on African Affairs, Sereke-Brhan currently serves as a senior grants manager for the arts commission. She succeeds Terrie Rouse-Rosario, who resigned last week after only nine months at the helm.
“The business we’re in, which is choosing grantees and getting money out the door, is all happening as it should,” says Kay Kendall, the chair of the commission’s board.
This transition has been anything but easy. Last week, Kendall faced the wrath of Mayor Bowser’s office after she issued a memo on Wednesday to commission staff directing them to suspend certain business activities. That same day, she received a call from John Falcicchio, Bowser’s chief of staff and the Interim Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, who threatened to remove her from her position. The next morning, Kendall arrived to DCCAH offices to find that she was locked out—her keycard access was restricted and her parking spot was taken away. (Her privileges have since been restored.)
The skirmish, details of which were first reported by WAMU, followed weeks of escalating flash points between Bowser and the arts commission, and more recently, between the mayor and Council Chairman Phil Mendelson.
“She was told that she should remember she works for the mayor,” Mendelson describes of Falcicchio’s not-at-all subtle response to Kendall’s order.
In a phone conversation shortly after word began to spread, Bowser reportedly told the chairman that she would prefer it if the entire commission would resign, Mendelson says.
“She knew about John’s phone call to Kay and John telling Kay she shouldn’t have sent that email,” Mendelson says. “And I would characterize the exchange as testy, and when I asked what to do to resolve this she said the entire commission should resign. I told her I didn’t think that would be very popular with the arts community, or the commission, or the Council.”
Indeed, the arts community has taken notice. A group called the D.C. Cultural Forum has launched a petition addressed to Bowser and other executive staffers calling on the mayor’s office to back off. The petition, which began circulating over the weekend, has nearly 300 signatures so far.
The Bowser administration’s threat to the art’s commission chair is the latest in a list of failed attempts to grab control of the arts (and the commission’s eight-figure grants purse). It began in May, when the mayor proposed converting several million dollars in arts grants into loans to be administered via the city’s new Cultural Plan. That sparked an outcry from artists that ultimately resulted in legislation from the Council cementing the arts commission’s status as an independent agency in July.
In August, Rouse-Rosario, the mayor’s appointed director of the commission, announced her resignation. On her way out, she appointed several mayoral detailees to newly created senior staff positions at the commission. She and the mayor’s office also canceled the 34th Annual Mayor’s Arts Awards, a longtime program organized by DCCAH.
Later that month, Bowser launched a new, and some might say duplicative, Office of Creative Affairs. This new agency will fall under the Office of Cable Television, Film, Music, and Entertainment (OCTFME), which is led by Angie Gates, Bowser’s close friend and ally. (Gates was also, briefly, an interim director of the arts commission, before she was undone by a censorship scandal.) The Office of Creative Affairs will now steer the Mayor’s Arts Awards.
Then, in September, Herronor seized control of the art collection that the DCCAH keeps safe in a locked vault. Public art staff at the arts commission no longer have unrestricted access to the art bank; to get in or out, staff must ask for permission from Gates’ office.
At that point, Mendelson intervened again, passing a legislative update that retroactively backdated the commission’s independence to July 22, the date that the Council passed the first bill, and not October 1. That action should have mooted any conflict with the mayor’s office, since it no longer has authority over the arts commission. But Kendall’s email, which cited authority granted to her under the commission’s bylaws to suspend any major business decisions, took the mayor’s office by surprise.
Kendall did not answer specific questions about the matter. Bowser, through her spokesperson, responded via email:
“The Mayor does not speak about her conversations with individual Councilmembers because doing so would eviscerate trust between them. The Council prescribed new specific qualifications for Commission members, yet did not create a mechanism to evaluate how current commissioners meet those requirements. The mayor is committed to ensure that the Commission can meet its fiduciary responsibilities to DC taxpayers. Current and potential Board members must meet these new qualifications set forth by the Council.”