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Last month at a public meeting of the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, Terrie Rouse-Rosario, the acting executive director, made a bold declaration: “I am the Commission!” she blurted out during a heated exchange at the full Commission meeting. 

You won’t find that statement in the city’s official meeting minutes. It didn’t make it into the public record. 

Rouse-Rosario was responding to Ward 1 commissioner Josef Palermo’s concerns about the current state of the DCCAH. The specific topic of discussion that led to her outburst: issues of transparency in the Commission’s budget. But Palermo wasn’t the only commissioner to voice worries in that meeting, and his particular issue wasn’t the only one raised.

D.C.’s arts community is on edge, and its diverse membership has been showing it. Mayor Muriel Bowser has proposed big changes to DCCAH, and many artists and arts organizations fear those changes will leave them behind, or leave them out entirely. 

Among Bowser’s proposed changes: scrapping millions of dollars of arts grants and replacing them with loans, and a complete restructuring of the Commission that would turn it into a new Department of Arts and Humanities, giving the mayor direct authority over the arts commission and expanding its mission to include cosmetology and culinary arts. 

Since she took office in 2014, Bowser has not been shy about her support for the District’s arts communities. Over the past several years, the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities has been at the forefront of the mayor’s very public push to make D.C. an arts town. She has steadily funneled more money to the DCCAH each year. 

And just last month she unveiled the city’s first Cultural Plan—a massive inter-agency survey of D.C.’s cultural communities that also outlines the myriad ways they can be supported and sustained by the District government. 

As the District’s designated arts agency, it’s long been DCCAH’s role to support and promote the arts and humanities throughout the city. This takes the shape of public art programs and education. But the DCCAH’s primary function is as a grant-making agency. The DCCAH is comprised of a full-time staff led by an executive director, as well as a Mayor-appointed, Council-approved independent volunteer Board of Commissioners who represent each ward of the city. 

On the surface, Bowser’s support of the arts is a good thing. In a city whose identity to outsiders is all buttoned-up national politics, it’s nice to have a mayor who supports the creativity and cultural identity that defines D.C.—not Washington. 

But peek under the lid, and find an arts commission that had been in growing turmoil for at least the past five years. 

City Paper interviewed nearly a dozen current and former DCCAH staff and commissioners, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. They describe a commission that has gradually fallen into a state of internal anxiety and disarray. Bowser appointed Arthur Espinoza as its executive director five years ago, but he stepped down from his position in June of last year; since then, the agency has had two different acting executive directors. 

Kennisha Rainge, a Bowser staffer in the Mayor’s Office of Talent and Appointments who is a detailee to the DCCAH, quickly amended Rouse-Rosario’s surprising statement in that commission meeting: “We are the Commission. The staff, everybody, this agency is the Commission,” she said. The D.C. arts community wonders if that’s true anymore.

*** 

When Arthur Espinoza was appointed to lead the DCCAH in October of 2015, he had big plans. 

“I think we’re poised to be leaders in the arts and humanities in a lot of ways. We have incredible talent, creativity, and history here,” Espinoza told City Paper in February of 2016. “The more we can showcase that through a united effort—it’s not just the agency working in a vacuum on behalf of these organizations and individuals—in the collaborative nature that the arts are, we can push the envelope and make D.C. a destination for arts and culture.”

Espinoza was an inspired choice to lead the city’s arts commission. A former dancer, he had spent the bulk of his career in the ballet and opera worlds with stints working with the Colorado Ballet, the Milwaukee Ballet, Central City Opera, Canyon Concert Ballet, and Opera Fort Collins before he joined the Washington Ballet in 2010. Three years later, he was tapped for a senior executive role as the ballet’s managing director. 

One of Espinoza’s—and the mayor’s—first opportunities to shake up the arts commission came in November 2017 with the death of Dolores Kendrick, D.C.’s poet laureate.

Kendrick was only the second person to occupy the post. It was launched to honor Sterling Brown, the poet, critic, and Howard University luminary, who held the laureateship for 5 years until his death in 1989. Afterward, the office fell into dispute; the city didn’t name another laureate for a decade, until E. Ethelbert Miller, poet and host of the weekly WPFW radio show On the Margin, successfully advocated to the city on Kendrick’s behalf.

As poet laureate, Kendrick shored up several aspects of the position. She won an office and a salary for the laureateship. While she was initially named to a three-year term in 1999, she continued to hold the post across mayoral administrations, serving as the laureate for nearly 20 years. There was no plan in place for naming her replacement. Members of the poetry community began to talk about the future of the program in February of last year, and the DCCAH assembled an ad hoc committee.

In March, poets spoke before the Commission, outlining their hopes for the process for naming Kendrick’s successor. Namely they wanted transparency, term limits, and public input, according to Sandra Beasley, a D.C. poet and writer in attendance. The Commission appeared to be receptive to those goals, she says.

But in April, Steven Walker, the director for the Mayor’s Office of Talent and Appointments, told the Commission that the mayor’s office was taking over the process. Walker had sent an email to the ad hoc poet laureate committee to notify members that the mayor wanted to dissolve their committee. 

“Somehow the process and governing body that’s trusted to do so much important arts curation for our community, and has been trusted for that role legislatively for 50 years, is somehow not trusted to have the primary voice in this decision,” Beasley says.

Now, the laureateship will no longer come with a salary, a move that Beasley says will make the position more elitist; most poets can’t afford to work for recognition as pay. A city job listing describes a rigorous set of expectations, including composing poetry for government events, reading at the request of the mayor, and serving as an official ambassador to the community. It also describe the poet laureate as a full-time, entry-level position, with an “advance retainer and/or reimbursement” negotiable. 

Limiting candidates for future laureates to those with  independent financial support would make the position more exclusive at a time when the poetry community would like to see greater representation and recognition east of the Anacostia River, Beasley says.

She worries that the changes proposed by Mayor Bowser’s office will undo Kendrick’s work and steer the laureateship toward a more administrative function.

“The recognition that a poet has to first and foremost be a creative force, and not a diplomatic force, is really important,” Beasley says. “It’s how we make sure that the poet laureate isn’t a bureaucrat assigned to art.”

For the DCCAH staff and some members of the Board of Commissioners, the poet laureate debacle was just one of several blunders that crippled morale. 

It wasn’t long after Espinoza’s arrival that problems in the Arts Commission started to emerge. According to several sources who worked in the DCCAH under Espinoza that spoke to City Paper under the condition of anonymity, Espinoza’s management style was to micromanage to an extreme. 

“There were late-night editing sessions where he was changing commas in to semicolons,” the source says. (Espinoza did not respond to City Paper’s requests for comment.)

A nitpicky boss might be annoying, but that was just the beginning of the problems. Soon, Espinoza’s severe management style evolved into a series of firings. It started with Tonya Jordan in December of 2017, and others soon followed. By April of 2018, Espinoza had fired five people from the commission and the rest of the DCCAH staff picked up on a troubling pattern: All five employees Espinoza fired were black, and four of the five were women. 

On April 18 of 2018, a group of seven DCCAH staffers sent a letter to Espinoza raising concerns about his management style, and copied the Commission’s human resources advisor, along with senior-level Bowser administration staff, including Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development Brian Kenner and City Administrator Rashad Young. 

“Each of the five people you have fired during your time at DCCAH have been Black… four of whom were Black women. You likely had your reasons for firing each person, but combined, they constitute a pattern that is in direct opposition to our core values,” reads the letter, which was obtained by City Paper and independently confirmed by several of its authors. 

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The letter went on to request that the DCCAH’s Board of Commissioners work with the appropriate parties within the mayor’s administration to determine if each of Espinoza’s actions were “truly warranted” and if the patterns of race and gender in the firings were “coincidental.” The signers of the letter also requested the Board determine if the staff’s salaries were equitable across race and gender and, “in what ways, in the future, if others are fired, they can be treated with a higher level of dignity and respect.” 

In early June of 2018, Espinoza quietly stepped down from his executive director role, and Bowser appointed Angie Gates, the Director of the Office of Cable Television, Film, Music and Entertainment, as DCCAH’s interim director.

*** 

When Angie Gates first took over the commission, it was like a breath of fresh air. “She [had] this sort of down home, very warm and friendly kind of approach,” one source tells City Paper. “Angie was coming in and speaking to each person—‘Good morning, how are you?’—which was something Arthur had never done. It was a nice culture shift.” 

But with Gates came an increased air of secrecy that had started with Espinoza. As an independent, volunteer body, the Board of Commissioners works in tandem with the executive director and DCCAH staff to accomplish the goals of the agency—primarily, to award public art grants and decide on other public-facing arts endeavors in the city. The Board of Commissioners and the DCCAH’s executive director and staff have a symbiotic relationship, one built on healthy communication in order to achieve the agency’s goals. 

But beginning with Espinoza and continuing with Gates, and now with DCCAH’s current acting executive director, Terrie Rouse-Rosario, communication between the Board of Commissioners and the DCCAH has become increasingly strained. Several commissioners who spoke to City Paper said that, in the past year, they’ve been left out of a bulk of the planning of some of the DCCAH’s biggest endeavors, including the development of the Cultural Plan. 

Gates didn’t come to the DCCAH alone; a team of Bowser staffers came with her to help with the transition. But their roles and titles in the DCCAH were never clearly established, and soon the existing DCCAH staff became suspicious, as Gates and her staff became more secretive about the Commission’s day-to-day work and long-term goals. Regular communication between DCCAH staff and commissioners, which prior to Gates’ arrival was a common occurrence, was barred.

“All of a sudden there was to be no staff conversations with board members for any circumstances,” one source remembers being told. “It was a nice culture shift [from Espinoza], except that there’s all this rampant speculation about her being very close to the mayor,” the source tells City Paper. “‘What is the mayor trying to do? Who are all these people?’”

*** 

The particular stresses of the Angie Gates era of the DCCAH came to a head in the fall of 2018 after the DCCAH sent a notice to the most recent round of grant recipients to notify them that their award came with an amendment: No project may be “lewd, lascivious, vulgar, overtly political, and/or excessively violent.” In other words: The DCCAH was preemptively censoring the work of its grantees. 

The surprising move, which was signed by Gates, came on the heels of an installation at the Franklin D Reeves Municipal Center by artist Marta Pérez-García. The piece, which was made with the DC Coalition Against Domestic Violence and $50,000 in funds from the DCCAH, featured cloth rag dolls and silhouettes suggesting police outlines. Some told broadcast news outlets that the installation looked like a lynching. Gates declined to comment on the reasons for the censorship amendment.

“This was a time where walking into the office every day is like walking into a hurricane,” a DCCAH source tells City Paper about this incident. “All the grantees are mad. All the leadership is mad. There were yelling matches in the office. It was an ugly, ugly place to be.”

After swift backlash from the arts community, Bowser herself made sure the amendment was rescinded. But by then, the damage to the DCCAH’s reputation was already done and Gates would soon be replaced by Rouse-Rosario in December of 2018.        

During her first Council hearing as director, in February, Rouse-Rosario hinted at a sea change to come. “I speak with experience when I say that this agency is going through transition, not just in leadership, but changes with the city,” she said. Within a few weeks, the city would find out what she meant.

In March, Bowser presented her draft budget for fiscal year 2020. One proposal has major implications for DCCAH: Bowser wants to revoke the Commission’s dedicated funding stream. Last year, the Council enacted a law that devotes 0.3 percent of the city’s 6 percent sales tax to the Commission; Bowser’s budget would restore the budget as a mayoral appropriation. 

In her short time as DCCAH’s executive director, Rouse-Rosario has established herself as a soldier for the mayor’s agenda. The new director, who comes to the District from the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta—where she also ran the Atlanta Ballet—has sided with Bowser’s efforts to remake the Arts Commission.

On April 29, she wrote a letter to the Council’s Committee of the Whole endorsing Bowser’s proposal to eliminate dedicated funding for her agency. A mayoral appropriation would provide greater transparency and flexibility, she argued. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson was not convinced.

“As was stated by Chairman Mendelson at the budget hearing, repealing the dedicated funding will not improve transparency or provide the agency more flexibility,” reads the committee’s markup of Bowser’s budget. “In fact, the repeal of the dedicated funding would create more angst and anxiety in the arts and humanities community because they are concerned that the funding for the Commission could be reduced at any time if the funds are not provided through a dedicated funding stream.” 

The same day that Rouse-Rosario asked the Council to let the mayor strip her agency’s funding, the arts community met up to talk about that “angst and anxiety.” 

On April 29, more than 150 people assembled at the Eaton Workshop for an emergency meeting to discuss the stormy weather on the arts horizon. Artists, nonprofit administrators, and theater directors were among the attendees in the standing-room-only crowd. Palermo and at least two other commissioners were in attendance. Peter Nesbett, the director of the Washington Project for the Arts, and Sheldon Scott, an artist and D.C. ambassador, were among those leading the proceedings. 

The forum broke down into several smaller focus groups to talk about subjects like housing and ward outreach, but they needn’t have bothered. Everyone wanted to talk about loans.

D.C.’s new Cultural Plan calls for a number of big shifts, including a new arts czar working within the Office of Planning and a steering committee to implement the program. But one feature has dominated discussions within the arts community: The mayor’s budget calls for converting millions of dollars in grants from the Commission’s budget into loans under the Cultural Plan.

Bowser’s proposed 2020 budget would zero out several purses under the Arts Commission and transfer funding to others; if passed, the budget would eliminate some $8.3 million in commission grants. The budget also introduces $8.4 million in funding for the Cultural Plan, including $5 million for a Cultural Facilities Fund and $2 million for an Innovation and Entrepreneurship Loan Fund.

While details about how these loan programs will function are virtually nonexistent, the loans are already a lightning rod for the arts community. The subject dominated the breakout groups during the Eaton session. Artists and administrators expressed fears that a semi-reliable source of arts funding would be transformed into a small-loan bank.  

“For a long time I’ve been learning how to play the game. The Cultural Plan says what the new game is going to be,” says Charles Jean-Pierre, a multimedia artist in attendance. “But people are saying this shouldn’t be a game at all.”

Rainge, who is now the Commission’s new chief of staff as of this month and a former associate director at the Mayor’s Office of Talent and Appointments, was on hand to answer questions about the Cultural Plan (but not from the press). Commission staff circulated a flyer to provide context for the divisive loan program. The flyer expressed that cuts to nearly $10 million in grants—much of which is to be converted to Cultural Plan loans—will come from D.C. Council earmarks.

“If you ask in particular some of the smaller and medium-sized arts organizations, none of them think that [the earmarks] process is fair because it tends to favor larger organizations,” says Kenner, the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development. Many of those earmarks only go to large cultural institutions in Wards 2, 3, and 4, he added.

The argument, at least as it was presented at the Eaton forum, failed to impress anybody. At this gathering, it mattered less who signs the checks than the fact that they don’t come with a repayment program.

“How are we creating sustainable models for artists and arts organizations?” said Adrienne Gaither, a D.C. painter, at Eaton. “I read the Cultural Plan and felt like, if I can’t profit, my ass has to go.”

Marie Whittaker, the interim chief of staff for the Deputy Mayor of Planning and Economic Development, says that the same grants that individual artists applied for this year will be available next year. The main loan fund under the Cultural Plan, the new Cultural Facilities Fund, would be “aimed at organizations who are looking for loan funding, who maybe can’t find it through the traditional route, from a bank or other places where they can access capital,” she says.

“I already have a mortgage,” Kristi Maiselman, executive director for CulturalDC, told City Paper in April. “I don’t need to borrow more money.”

Others raised questions during the session about how existing Commission grants work. Rouse-Rosario has trumpeted some of those changes. The Commission’s recently released 2018 annual report shows a 63 percent increase in grant funds awarded over fiscal year 2017 (for a total of $23 million). The number of grants went up, too, by 24 percent (to 692 total grants). And 168 of those Commission grants went to new awardees (about one in four).

“The number of people we serve has increased by 900 percent. The number of our organization’s budget has increased by 500 percent,” said Christie Walser, executive director of Project Create, an Anacostia-based art studio. “But last year, the grant we received went down by 18 percent.”

Mendelson and other councilmembers are pushing back against these changes. His budget markup restored dedicated funding for the Commission and called for a hearing on the Cultural Plan. Kenner, who tells City Paper that Mendelson’s reversals are “vindictive,” says that the mayor is trying to codify practices that are already in place. “Some of the proposed changes that I think came out of the Committee and from the Chairman seem to go in the completely wrong direction,” Kenner says.

At her first Council hearing, Rouse-Rosario pledged to expand the reach of the Commission, bringing more programming and funding to underserved communities east of the Anacostia River. She is also championing a mission by the mayor that members of the Commission and the arts community say is wrong. The Eaton arts forum settled on three points: The loans have to go. The Commission should keep its fixed funding. And the Commission must retain its independence. 

Rouse-Rosario, who declined multiple requests for interviews, has argued for the reverse. Her vision aligns with Bowser’s: an Arts Commission that operates under the executive, with funding set by the mayor, and with a system of loans to replace grants aplenty.

“If the Commissioners are gone, it’s game over,” says Nabeeh Bilal, an illustrator and animator. “We have no voice.”