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The mayor’s plans to shake up the D.C.’s arts commission may not happen after all, thanks to an intervention from the chairman of the D.C. Council.
Last month, Mayor Muriel Bowser pledged to upend the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, introducing major shifts in the organization’s budget, funding, and structure. The mayor’s office is weighing a bill that would make the independent commission into a department-level agency under the Office of the Mayor.
But at today’s Committee of the Whole budget mark-up, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson outlined his committee recommendations for the DCCAH’s FY2020 budget, and it diverged greatly from what Bowser has in mind.
Displeased with the mayor’s budget for DCCAH, Mendelson moved to reverse or delay several of those changes.
Most notably, Mendelson’s budget shores up the dedicated funding for the commission, a hard-fought feature that Bowser threatened to strip. The D.C. Council passed a law last year to dedicate 0.3 percent of the city’s 6 percent sales tax to fund DCCAH on an ongoing basis. In her proposed budget for 2020, Bowser zeroed out this funding entirely, restoring the old funding mechanism, via budget appropriation.
In a Committee of the Whole budget oversight hearing on April 5, Mendelson had some harsh words for the newly appointed acting DCCAH executive director Terrie Rouse-Rosario over the proposed axing of dedicated funding.
“So I’m actually kind of offended that the dedicated funding was removed. I don’t understand why it was removed. I think it was stupid to do that,” he said. “For one thing, it allows for more certainty, not absolute certainty—more certainty.”
Rouse-Rosario issued a statement on Thursday supporting Bowser’s plan for the commission, even though many arts commissioners have objected to the changes under discussion.
“Mayor Bowser’s fiscal year 2020 budget laid out an equitable path for supporting the District’s creative and cultural sectors across all eight wards,” Rouse-Rosario said. “The commission on the Arts and Humanities is carefully reviewing the changes that were proposed today by the Committee of the Whole of the D.C. Council.”
The city’s brand new Cultural Plan, a subject of scrutiny within the arts commission, also came up for debate during the Committee of the Whole budget mark-up. (Oversight of DCCAH shifted from the Committee on Finance and Revenue to the Committee of the Whole, which Mendelson chairs, as part of an official reprimand of Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans in March.)
Mendo called for a hearing on the implementation of the Cultural Plan, which has garnered criticism from artists and organization for replacing millions in grants—which are administered by the arts commission or the Council—with loans.
Earlier this week, members of the city’s arts community gathered for a forum at Eaton Hotel to discuss their concerns about the potential big shift in grants funding. Hundreds of people attended the forum and, in the days following, flooded Mendelson’s office with letters of concern about the consequences of replacing arts grants with loans.
At-Large Councilmember David Grosso echoed Mendelson’s criticism of the city’s new arts prospectus. “I believe the rollout of the plan was bungled,” he says.
Several members of the Council spoke in favor of Mendelson’s efforts to preserve the commission’s independence, dedicated funding, and grant-making authority. Grosso says that he agrees with Mendelson about “making the agency entirely independent.” At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds says that the repeal of the commission’s devoted funding stream is “not in the best interest” of the arts community. Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd—a frequent Bowser ally—also chimed in with support for the Chairman’s budget recommendations.
Evans, who lost his oversight role to Mendelson, says that he doesn’t think the Council chair’s proposed budget goes far enough.
“We’re really not stepping up. Unfortunately many of our theaters are struggling, whether it’s Shakespeare Theatre or Arena Stage,” Evans says. He adds, “I’ll keep fighting for more funding for the arts as we go forward.”