Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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UPDATE, Sept. 11, 4:45 p.m.: On Sept. 5, the spokesperson for the D.C. Commission on Arts and Humanities said that the mayor’s office had restored access to the public art vault. But a week later, arts commission staff who deal with the city’s public arts collection say they are still locked out. Now, the only way public art staff can get into the art bank is with permission from staff at the Office of Cable Television, Film, Music & Entertainment. That office, led by Angie Gates, a close friend and ally of the mayor, has now absorbed at least two programs previously run through the Arts Commission: the annual Mayor’s Arts Awards and the city’s public art collection.

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Last Friday, Mayor Muriel Bowser’s office took steps to seize the art collection held by the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities by locking commission staff out of the agency’s vault of public art, escalating a heated showdown between the mayor and the city’s arts administration body.

DCCAH staff arrived at their offices in Southeast before the holiday weekend to find that the badges that grant them access to the agency’s art collection no longer worked. According to staffers present, including one whose access was affected, commission employees soon realized that no one could get into the vault, a safekeep for hundreds of paintings, photographs, sculptures, and other works by District artists. Among the local luminaries represented in the collection are William Christenberry, Alma Thomas, and Sam Gilliam.

Several staff members who were not authorized to talk about the incident described a security officer arriving on Friday morning to discuss the situation in the lobby with Terrie Rouse-Rosario, the commission’s outgoing interim director. On Tuesday, when staffers returned after the Labor Day holiday, they still couldn’t get into the locker of flat files, rolling racks for paintings, and other storage units.

In a memo to commissioners, Kay Kendall, the board chair for the Arts Commission, confirmed that the locks had been changed. “Yes, apparently last Friday when [art collection registrar Ron Humbertson] tried to access the art vault to get art for an installation, he could not get in,” the memo reads. “It was a surprise as he (and no one to my knowledge) had a heads up.”

It wasn’t immediately clear who made the decision to cut out Arts Commission staff, or when. “It was outside the agency,” says Jeffrey Scott, chief of external affairs for the commission. “We didn’t lock ourselves out, of course.” (He adds that staff access to the vault for the Arts Bank—a collection of more than 3,000 artworks, only some of which are stored in the vault at any given time—has now been restored.)

Still, the stewardship of the city’s arts collection appears to be up in the air. In response to questions about the incident, the mayor’s office provided a statement. “The art collection is the property of and insured by District of Columbia Government,” says Chanda Washington, director of communications for the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning & Economic Development. “We have a fiduciary responsibility to maintain these valuable assets and their rich cultural history.”

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The apparent maneuver is the latest turn in the wrestling match between the mayor’s office and the arts commission. On Thursday, the night before the apparent lockout, Mayor Bowser announced the launch of a new Office of Creative Affairs, a new agency for arts policy, during a party for the 202Creates festival at the Eaton Hotel.

In her memo, Kendall lists the Office of Creative Affairs as a factor in the alleged seizure of the art collection. “[T]hat action makes sense once you read the last bullet in the Mayor’s announcement about the new Office of Creative Affairs that will maintain all the art owned by the District.” 

Earlier this year, the mayor’s office tried to exert greater control over funding for the arts. It’s a large purse: In fiscal year 2017, the Arts Commission allocated some $23 million for arts grants. A plan by the mayor to convert several million dollars in arts grants into loans drew an outcry from artists and arts organizations across the city. During budget negotiations over the summer, the D.C. Council introduced an amendment to affirm the independence of the Arts Commission.

The legislation did not settle the matter. Executive staff at the arts commission interpret the legislation to mean that DCCAH must now strike out on its own, according to staffers familiar with the agency’s preparations for the next fiscal year. The commission’s spokesperson confirms that the agency is writing memorandums of understanding with District agencies to pay for space, utilities, and other services come October 1. 

“Part of how we’ve come to this understanding, that this is the way we’re going to have to operate, is the guidance that we’ve received from [DMPED] and [EOM],” Scott says. “But it’s also the practice of other independent agencies within the District’s government.”

He adds, “What’s different is those agencies started off as independent.”

The text of the legislation in question says that “the Mayor shall provide the Commission with the services and facilities necessary for the Commission to carry out its duties and responsibilities.” (Scott says that the bill does not say that the mayor has to provide services at no cost.)

Another relevant line from the bill could speak to the future of the commission’s art collection. “By October 1, 2019, the Mayor shall transfer to the Commission such position, personnel, property, records, and unexpended balances of appropriations, allocations, and other funds available or assigned to the Office of the Mayor for the purposes of funding and running the Commission, at which time the Commission on the Arts and Humanities within the Office of the Mayor shall be abolished.”

The split in interpretation of the legislation has had real-world consequences for the arts commission even though the the bill has yet to take effect. When Rouse-Rosario—the agency’s outgoing interim director, and a Bowser ally—announced her resignation, it was also announced that the mayor was canceling the 34th Annual Mayor’s Arts Awards.

Now the annual gala and awards ceremony is back on, but under the purview of the Creative Affairs Office, the new bureau under the Office of Cable Television, Film, Music & Entertainment. 

The announcement of the mayor’s new arts office prompted criticism from Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, who led the legislative bulwark for the Arts Commission. 

Ultimately, any decision over the stewardship of the city’s art collection may fall to Angie Gates, director of OCTFME and a close friend and ally of Bowser. Gates’ office did not return a request for comment. In a memo sent late Thursday, Kendall writes that “Terrie and Angie have talked and Angie is happy to work with us.”

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