Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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By her own admission, the acting director of the Commission on the Arts and Humanities is clueless about how to move forward following a D.C. Council revamp.

Mayor Muriel Bowser and her pick to lead the Commission, Terrie Rouse-Rosario, spent months seeking to consolidate more executive branch control over the panel, whose commissioners are appointed by the mayor and confirmed by councilmembers.

The Council rejected the mayor’s maneuver, which included a controversial move to replace some of the Commission’s grants to artists with loans. Council Chair Phil Mendelson canned the idea, instead increasing the Commission’s independence.

“We don’t have a clue as to what we’re going to do,” Rouse-Rosario said at the Commission’s meeting on Thursday afternoon, the first since the Council approved its changes through next year’s budget package. On the details of the Council’s legislation, she said: “We’re trying to figure what all of that means.”

In reality, the legislation does not change much beyond giving the Commission more independence. But Rouse-Rosario is left to deal with the defeat of the mayor’s plan, which might explain why she is feeling dejected.

Rouse-Rosario said the Council’s changes turn the Commission into an “independent agency,” moving it out of the mayor’s office entirely. She was quick to note that the mayor still appoints commissioners. The mayor still appoints the panel’s chair from among its 18 commissioners, but the Council voted to amend the law to make it explicit that chair is subject to D.C. Council approval.

Another change involves Rouse-Rosario’s current position, paid $146,500 a year. The Council’s reforms mean the Commission needs to hire a new director by October, and Rouse-Rosario says she has “absolutely no idea” whether she will apply to keep the job.

“We do have a new paradigm,” said Commission chair Kay Kendall, a Ward 2 rep on the board, after showering praise on Rouse-Rosario’s work since she took over last December. “She’s been doing a fabulous job.”

But the Commission and the arts community at large has been in turmoil for the better part of Bowser’s mayoral term, which nonetheless has been a time of increased public investment in the Arts Commission. The mayor had argued her proposal would have given more support for artists in majority-black wards, but many nonprofits that rely on the Commission’s grants were rattled about the proposed switch in favor of loans, in addition to commissioners ceding power to the executive.

Thursday’s meeting lasted under an hour, and Rouse-Rosario only gave brief comments. But at one point, Commissioner José Alberto Uclés from Ward 5 accused the director of effectively bringing a security detail with her.

“How come there’s security outside?” he asked, referring to two security officers dawdling outside the meeting room, in the Arts Commission’s lobby.

After some awkward laughs in the room, Rouse-Rosario said they were routinely inside the building, while Uclés said he’s “never seen them before.” (“You better behave yourself,” one person quipped.)

While the Commission figures out how to govern with its new autonomy, one policy change this year will help it plan multi-year projects, such as the renovation of the Chinatown arch.

The Commission will work with the District’s Office of the Chief Financial Officer and city budget officials to establish a capital budget, in order to safekeep funds for projects that can’t be completed in a single year.

For instance, the Commission has $200,000 allocated to renovate the Friendship Archway in Chinatown, but the project is nowhere close to starting and will likely need more money in the future. Typically, the Commission has had to spend such funds within the fiscal year, according to Commission staffer Jeffrey Scott, but now it will aim to store it in a capital budget to carry it over.

There is also $300,000 to fund a sculpture of Charles Hamilton Houston, a 20th century prominent black lawyer and Washingtonian who was dean of Howard University Law School. Kendall said the site selection for the piece is ongoing.

“Public art is mini construction projects, so trying to get something done in a given year is setting us up to fail,” said Michael Bigley, deputy director of the Commission, on the need to establish a multiyear capital budget. 

Correction: An original version of this article stated that commissioners previously elected the chair themselves. This was a proposal that never passed. The mayor continues to appoint the chair.

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