D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson Credit: Darrow Montgomery

The D.C. Council is pushing back against Mayor Muriel Bowser over her clash with the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities (DCCAH), a conflict that has escalated over the last two months.

On Tuesday, Council Chairman Phil Mendelson issued a letter to the mayor asking for answers about efforts by her office to strip specific powers from DCCAH staff, which he compared to “intentional sabotage.”

The memo called for the mayor to “rescind or rectify several actions” that adversely affect the commission, namely a move to lock staff out of the city’s public art collection.

Staff at the Arts Commission discovered just before Labor Day that they no longer had access to the city’s Art Bank, a storage vault where the commission safeguards an art collection worth millions of dollars. The night before the lockout, at a flashy downtown party, Mayor Bowser launched a separate arts authority, the Office of Creative Affairs, a new division under the Office of Cable Television, Film, Music & Entertainment (OCTFME). 

Two weeks later, DCCAH staff responsible for public art can only access the art vault with the permission of staff working under Angie Gates, director of OCTFME and Bowser’s close friend and ally. 

“While this action by the Executive branch may be based on a recent Mayor’s order, it is not based in law, and in fact has no legal authority behind it,” Mendelson’s memo reads, referring to the art collection’s confiscation. “Your action also undercuts the work of the Commission and subverts recent legislative enactment.”

Mendelson also sent the memo to the city administrator, Rashad Young, and Jeffrey DeWitt, the chief financial officer, both of whom the council chairman has consulted about the schism in the city’s arts administration.

The row between the council and the mayor over DCCAH—and its tens of millions of dollars in arts grants—broke open over the summer. As the city launched its long-awaited Cultural Plan, the mayor’s office sought to convert more than $8 million in arts grants into loans. After an outcry from the arts community, Mendelson led a successful effort to shore up the independence of the commission with an amendment to the mayor’s budget.

Since then, the acting director of the commission, Terrie Rouse-Rosario, who supported the mayor’s plans for the commission’s funds, has prepared staff for major changes. In May, before the bill was finalized, her staff prepared a memo warning that the legislation would have consequences tantamount to dissolving the agency.

“Existing CAH staff would no longer be employees of District Government, and would need to be informed that their position with CAH will end on September 30, 2019,” the unsigned May memo warned. “Hiring would need to be completed by the new entity and the process typically takes two-to-four months.”

Rouse-Rosario announced her resignation in August. In recent weeks, she has appointed several staffers to new senior positions with significant salaries, including permanent positions for detailees from the Mayor’s Office of Talent and Appointments and from OCTFME.

Last month, arts commissioners were informed that the 34th Annual Mayor’s Arts Awards would be canceled. They have since been reinstated as a program will be run by Gates at OCTFME. 

Several staffers at the Arts Commission say that they expect to find the doors locked when they arrive to their offices on October 1, when the commission’s new independent status takes effect.

“I continue to receive reports that what the Executive is telling Commission staff conflicts with what the CFO indicates is necessary,” Mendelson’s September 10 memo reads. “There’s no excuse for this, and I hope it is not intentional sabotage.”

This post has been updated to clarify when the DCCAH memo was released.