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On Tuesday, the D.C. Council shifted oversight of the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, the administrative agency responsible for the city’s public art programs and grants. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson now has oversight of the Commission under the purview of his Committee of the Whole. This may be the first step in a sweeping transformation of the commission and its functions, changes that have put some people in the city’s arts community on edge.
Oversight of the arts commission is part of the portfolio of responsibilities stripped from Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans as a result of the ongoing investigation into his alleged misconduct. As the chair of the Committee on Finance and Revenue, Evans has served as a steward of the commission since 2013.
The handoff comes as Mayor Muriel Bowser weighs several seismic shakeups for the commission. Her proposed 2020 budget would eliminate a newly enacted dedicated funding source for the commission and handcuff its spending decisions. Moreover, the mayor’s office plans to reintroduce legislation that would turn the commission into a new Department of Arts and Humanities. Among other changes, this bill would give the mayor direct authority over the arts commission and expand its mission to include cosmetology and culinary arts.
The bill, which the mayor first floated as an omnibus amendment last year, could strip the commissioners of their grantmaking powers altogether, and this worries them. Currently, the agency’s 17 commissioners—a panel of mayor-appointed volunteers from every Ward—administer close to $15 million in grant funds each year.
“I’m of two minds,” says Kay Kendall, chair of the DCCAH Board of Commissioners. “If it’s just nomenclature, that’s not a make or break deal for me. What is a make or break deal for me is the ability to vote on and approve grants.”
Members of the arts community are lobbying the Council to preserve the commission’s independent function, and prior to Tuesday’s Legislative Meeting, many hoped to see oversight of the agency fall to At-Large Councilmember David Grosso, who founded ArtsActionDC, an advocacy group representing 200 different arts organizations, and spearheaded the push for the forthcoming Cultural Plan.
Mendelson repeatedly declined to comment on the reassignment process to constituents in D.C.’s arts community.
“A matter such as this is internal to the Council and I don’t want councilmembers jockeying to pick up the spoils of Mr. Evans’ punishment,” reads an email obtained by City Paper from Mendelson to one former arts commissioner. “So I think it would be best if there was not a lobbying campaign from our arts community.”
Proposed changes for the commission follow a year of highs and lows. In November, Angie Gates, the former interim director of the commission, upset local artists by adding an amendment to local grants that would prevent any funds from being used for any project considered “lewd, lascivious, vulgar, overtly political, and/or excessively violent.” The Bowser administration quickly nixed this censorship provision.
Last year, the Council also passed dedicated funding for the commission: 0.3 percent of the city’s 6 percent sales tax, plus another $2.5 million from the Delinquent Debt Recovery Fund. At an oversight meeting in February, Evans described this shift, which gave the commission a guaranteed budget of about $30 million, as “an enormous achievement” that he had pursued for many years. “For the first time in history, we do not have to go hat in hand to the executive for the budget,” he said at the time.
But the new dispensation might not last. Bowser’s fiscal year 2020 budget would zero out this dedicated funding stream and return the commission’s budget to an annual apportionment from the general fund. The DC Fiscal Policy Institute criticized the Council’s decision to “prioritize funding for the arts over other investments for District residents, and tie it to a regressive tax that disproportionately affects low-income residents.”
The mayor’s FY 2020 budget would also eliminate three generic grantmaking purses—Art Building Communities, DC Creates Public Art, and Arts Learning and Outreach—and instead distribute those funds to a number of subcategorized line items, giving the commission less leeway over its spending. While the budget increases overall DCCAH funding by 10 percent, it decreases funding for grants that go to artists and arts organizations by about 25 percent.
Much of the grant funding will instead be shifted to the Cultural Plan. Bowser’s budget devotes $8.4 million to the Cultural Plan, including $5 million for a Cultural Facilities Fund and $2 million for an Innovation Entrepreneurship Loan Fund. Bowser will unveil the Cultural Plan on Thursday at the Anacostia Playhouse—a year after a draft of it was released to the public.
“The taking of $7 to $8 million out of the grant coffers to fund loans sends a clear message to all D.C. artists and small arts organizations that the mayor doesn’t see them as integral to her vision for this city,” says Peter Nesbett, executive director for the Washington Project for the Arts.
Years in the making, the Cultural Plan is a massive inter-agency effort between DCCAH, the Office of Planning, and the Office of Cable Television, Film, Music and Entertainment (of which Gates serves as director) that aims to be a comprehensive and exhaustive survey of D.C.’s cultural communities—and the ways local government can help strengthen and support them.
But one commissioner says that the agency has had very little actual input in crafting the plan and that the Board of Commissioners have largely been left in the dark.
“Despite the fact that the Commission is listed as a co-author, we have not been involved in any way. Commissioners have never been briefed,” the commissioner told City Paper on the condition of anonymity. “Basically the community has been asking the same questions we are. We’ve basically been sidelined. We’ve had no communications from the Commission in months … no one gets back to me. It’s very, very bad.”
Problems in the DCCAH first arose when former director Arthur Espinoza was at the helm, according to the commissioner. Espinoza stepped down from his role in June of 2018 and Gates was appointed to serve as interim director. Under Espinoza, communication between the DCCAH and its Board of Commissioners broke down, and things didn’t get better when Gates took over.
“I thought Arthur was bad, but Angie Gates was far, far worse,” the commissioner tells City Paper. Members of the arts community who testified before the February oversight hearing also singled out Gates for criticism. “She told Kay Kendall she didn’t feel the need to answer to anyone but the Mayor.”
In December of 2018, Terrie Rouse-Rosario was installed as the commission’s new executive director, replacing Gates. Since that time, she’s declined several requests for comment. At the February hearing, though, she played down the changes coming from the mayor’s office. She said that the legislation merely “codifies what we’re already doing.”
When she was confronted by Margery Goldberg, the founder and owner of Zenith Gallery, about her concerns about the proposed changes, Rouse-Rosario dismissed some as rumor: No, the mayor is not eliminating the commissioners’ positions. No, the mayor is not merging the commission with the D.C. Office of Cable Television, Film, Music and Entertainment. (At the same meeting, Evans confirmed the appointment of Derek Younger, chief of staff for OCTFME, as a new commissioner.)
Yes, she said, the DCCAH mission will expand to include the culinary arts.
“I think that’s a separate category,” Goldberg said, objecting.
“You’re a traditionalist!” Rouse-Rosario said. “Do you know how many foodies are in this town?”