Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Terrie Rouse-Rosario, the acting director of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities who pledged to shake up public funding of the arts, has resigned, effective September 30. The head of DCCAH since December, Rouse-Rosario served as Mayor Muriel Bowser’s spear in her efforts to bring the Arts Commission under the control of the executive branch.

That campaign faltered after artists and some arts commissioners rebelled against the proposed changes, including a controversial plan to replace local arts grants with loans for artists and organizations. During budget negotiations over the summer, the D.C. Council passed an amendment to shore up the independence of the Arts Commission. The acting director’s resignation comes after the Council tasked the Arts Commission with appointing a permanent director by the start of the new fiscal year on October 1.

While her tenure was brief, Rouse-Rosario may leave a lasting imprint on the organization. The 34th Annual Mayor’s Arts Awards, the prestigious arts honors program launched by Mayor Marion Barry in 1981, will not be taking place this year; the ceremony has been scotched. And despite her looming departure, Rouse-Rosario is staffing up, hiring executive administrators to fill brand new senior management roles she created.

“Why would you be hiring new staff if you know you’re on the way out the door?” says one DCCAH staffer, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “I jokingly said to a coworker, if [President Barack] Obama can’t appoint a Supreme Court Justice in his last term, then surely this is not appropriate.”

Rouse-Rosario’s recent activity garnered the ire of Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, who issued a letter to the outgoing arts director on August 19 asking for detailed explanations for staffing changes, personnel vacancies, and a transition plan. The letter obtained by City Paper calls on Rouse-Rosario to “please provide in chronological order a list of every new hire, every separation, and every promotion/demotion since October 1, 2018 through August 23, 2019.”

News of the hires has also raised concerns among arts commissioners about the mayor’s reach into the commission’s operations as it takes up a more independent footing. Commissioners say they are being held in the dark about decisions taking place as the search begins for new leadership.

“The hiring of staff may be under the purview of the Executive Director but creating a slate of new positions without any communication to the commissioners and outside the approved budget is concerning,” writes Cicie Sattarnilasskorn, treasurer for the Arts Commission, in an email to Kay Kendall, the commission’s board chair. A third party provided City Paper with the email.

Two of the newly created positions have been filled by Bowser staffers who were initially appointed to the Arts Commission from offices under the mayor. Their initial appearance at meetings this year rankled some commissioners, prompting verbal spats reflected in Arts Commission meeting minutes. 

For example, Rouse-Rosario promoted Kennisha Rainge, who joined the commission this year as a detailee from the Mayor’s Office of Talent and Appointments, to the new office of chief of staff. Two program staffers, Ebony Brown and JaKenna Martin—veterans with a combined 26 years of experience at the agency—both quit in late June after repeated conflicts with Rainge, gutting the programs department, according to several people familiar with their departures.

Mendelson’s letter mentions Rainge specifically. “I understand that Ms. Kennisha Rainge was recently hired as Chief of Staff,” the letter reads. “Is there any thought as to changing her position in the agency? If yes, please explain.”

Rainge will be joined by a new special assistant: Brenda Walker, a detailee from the Office of Cable Television, Film, Music and Entertainment, which is helmed by Angie Gates, a close Bowser ally who also briefly served as director of the Arts Commission before she was derailed by a censorship scandal.

“We’re now basically at a one-to-one, senior-to-junior staff ratio,” says the commission staffer.

Of the seven new positions created by Rouse-Rosario, three come with six-figure salaries. Both the Special Assistant to the Chief of Staff and a new supervisory grants management specialist, a position senior to current managers, offer a payscale between $91,000 and $127,000 according to job listings—significant salaries for the Arts Commission. 

“I do want to clarify for people that part of my concern as Treasurer regarding this influx of newly created positions from a financial position is that they come with quite high salaries and it is unclear why that is necessary,” Sattarnilasskorn’s August 10 email reads. “The fact that the funding for these hires is outside the scope of the already approved budget (that commissioners approve) and special approval was sought and given (without so much as a heads up to the commissioner) is financially suspect.”

“When we have a new [executive director], that ED will be able to organize the office as she or he sees fit and can communicate to us what his or her plan is,” Kendall wrote in an August 11 reply.

Michael Bigley, who served as deputy director for the Arts Commission for the last three-and-a-half years, also announced his resignation this month, marking another loss of institutional knowledge at the commission. Bigley did not respond to a request for comment.

“For a lot of us, Michael Bigley was the rock of institutional knowledge and calm competence that we could rely on when we were super confused or panicked about what seemed to be going on at the commission,” says Mark Chalfant, artistic and executive director at Washington Improv Theater.  “I imagine his experience has been trying—to go through three or four directors in three years.”

In his letter, Mendelson asks Rouse-Rosario to outline her transition plan for the agency by Friday, August 23. The chairman’s letter also asks whether the Arts Commission is “currently negotiating or otherwise moving toward execution for a memorandum of understanding/agreement (MOUs or MOAs) with any government entity”—possibly a reference to the pessimistic theory of the case held by Arts Commission leadership about what the transition truly entails.

Rouse-Rosario and staff have outlined a hard exit scenario for the Arts Commission. Back in May, in the run-up to the Council’s decision to push back against the mayor’s agenda, DCCAH leadership circulated an unsigned memo that warned that an independent commission would need to essentially start from scratch. All staff would have to be rehired, new offices would need to be located, and existing contracts would be canceled. The legislation itself does not appear to anticipate any such HR-pocalypse. (“The Mayor shall provide the commission with the services and facilities necessary for the Commission to carry out its duties and responsibilities,” the bill reads in part.)

That memo warned that numerous events would be nixed: the Labor Day Music Festival, SummerSet concerts on the National Mall, even Black History Month programming. The commission appears to have made good on one event mentioned in the memo. The decision to cancel the annual Mayor’s Arts Awards program was relayed to the commission by agency staff leadership, according to one commissioner who spoke on condition of anonymity.

A staffer in the mayor’s office says that the administration plans to bring the Mayor’s Arts Award program back in 2020, once the dust has settled from the Arts Commission’s transition to a more independent status. But it isn’t certain whether the Mayor’s Arts Awards will return as an Arts Commission program. “We welcome the collaboration,” the mayor’s office says. “A year will give us time to see how that will come together.”

However, the Bowser administration has assumed other functions from the Arts Commission. Back in April, the Mayor’s Office of Talent and Appointments notified the commission that it was taking over the process to select the city’s official poet laureate—a previously salaried (and now defunded) position that remains unfilled.

“The 2018 [Mayor’s Arts Awards] was supposed to be when we found out who the poet laureate was,” says Sandra Beasley, a D.C. poet and writer. “So the 2019 ceremony would have been the logical time to announce that, too.”

Rouse-Rosario, who announced plans for her departure at a meeting with Arts Action D.C., the arts lobbying group, has not formally notified the Arts Commission that she has resigned. But with an Oct. 1 transition marked on the calendar, the Arts Commission has already retained a search firm to look for her replacement.

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