Mayor Muriel Bowser
Mayor Muriel Bowser Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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At a fall arts kickoff on Thursday evening, Mayor Muriel Bowserwill announce a new push to bolster the city’s local creative economy. Bowser is launching an Office of Creative Affairs, a bureau that will act as a steward for the arts and related industries.

The mayor will introduce the new office during an opening party for 202Creates, a month-long campaign to highlight local musicians, performers, and makers of all sorts. While many details are still to come, the new office will operate as a stand-alone agency under the Office of Cable Television, Film, Music & Entertainment (OCTFME).

Bowser, who has sought more control over arts funding for the executive branch, is making good on that mission by expanding the org chart. The Office of Creative Affairs launch follows a shake-up in the city’s arts bureaucracy, which administers millions of dollars in grants in support of a multi-billion-dollar creative sector.

Earlier in August, Terrie Rouse-Rosario, acting director of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, announced her resignation after just 8 months at the helm. At the same time, one of the Arts Commission’s signature programs, the annual Mayor’s Arts Awards, which were planned for October, were decreed canceled.

But the mayor will announce tonight that the 34th annual Mayor’s Arts Awards will happen after all, with a gala set for November. This edition will be organized by OCTFME, under Director Angie Gates, a close friend and ally of Bowser’s, not under the Arts Commission, its longtime host.

The new Office of Creative Affairs has significant implications for the now-leaderless Arts Commission, which disbursed $23 million in grants in fiscal year 2017. On her way out the door, Rouse-Rosario, who spearheaded the mayor’s efforts to wrest control over local arts funding, hired several key staffers to newly created positions, including at least three senior administrators at six-figure salaries.

Now, a memo from the mayor’s office says that the Office of Creative Affairs will be “the central coordination body for the reconstituted D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities.” The new office will not have grantmaking authority over the Arts Commission.

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, who locked horns with the mayor this summer over her budget, criticized the Creative Affairs Office. “It is not in the best interest of the public or the arts community for the mayor to undermine the Commission on Arts and Humanities,” Mendelson said in an email. “Instead of setting up her own office, she should work with the community and make it stronger.”

The Arts Commission earned greater independence earlier this summer after battling with the Bowser administration over arts funding for the better part of a year. As part of the city’s new Cultural Plan, the mayor’s office had sought to convert more than $8 million in arts grants into loans. That plan drew the ire of local artists and arts administrators and, eventually, the attention of the D.C. Council, which passed an amendment to the 2020 budget shoring up the Arts Commission.

“[Bowser’s] stubbornness on this issue echoes her recalcitrance over the Circulator; she is out of step with the Council and the public,” Mendelson says. “Except launching a new office of creative affairs to compete with the independent arts commission will be counterproductive and wasteful of public dollars.”

Even as the Arts Commission searches for a new director, the mayor’s office is already assuming a greater hand in managing cultural affairs. The hashtag-friendly 202Creates campaign, which kicks off on Thursday at Eaton Hotel, is a celebration of D.C.’s “culinary, cosmetology, fashion industries, musicians, performing artists, filmmakers, tech entrepreneurs, visual artists, and production support companies,” per the mayor’s memo. 

“I am excited to be part of this historic moment,” Gates said in a statement. “Our Mayor believes that artists, creators, and cultural institutions in D.C. deserve a champion. It will be our goal for this new office to honor D.C.’s rich history of visual arts, music, culinary, and language arts—and so much more—that makes D.C. such a vibrant place in all eight wards.”

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