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This week, the D.C. government took an alarming turn toward censorship—albeit a brief one.
The D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, which funds projects by local artists and arts organizations through grants, sent a notice to recipients who received awards in the most recent round. It was an amendment to the award, a stipulation adding new, restrictive language about what kind of art can be made using D.C. arts grants. No project may be “lewd, lascivious, vulgar, overtly political, and/or excessively violent,” according to the amendment—including the projects that the commission had just rewarded.
The amendment set off red alarms throughout the city’s arts communities. The commission seemed to be setting speech limits on grant-funded projects after the fact. Artists and organizations heard the government’s message loud and clear: Abide by these content codes or risk losing any award funds. The National Coalition Against Censorship issued a letter, signed by leaders of local and national organizations, urging the commission to retract the amendment. The American Civil Liberties Union got involved.
“These limitations are in direct conflict with the right to freedom of expression and the very definition of art,” said At-Large Councilmember David Grosso, in a statement sent to City Paper. “Not only do they need to be reversed, but the Commission needs to immediately inform grantees of the retraction.”
In the end, the threat to free speech was short lived. On Thursday, Mayor Muriel Bowser’s office rescinded the amendment, according to Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans. Bowser’s office later confirmed the rescindment.
“It should never have been sent out in the first place,” says Evans. The councilmember says that Rhona Friedman, an attorney and Ward 2 DCCAH commissioner, alerted him to the amendment. He has since spoken with Bowser’s chief of staff, John Falcicchio, and confirmed that it will be rescinded. “We should not be censoring artwork or anything of that nature. It was not well thought out,” he adds.
This evening, the DCCAH sent out a letter to all grantees explaining that the amendment was an “over-correction” and has been officially rescinded.
Questions still remain about the origins of this censorship push. It was signed by Angie Gates, the commission’s interim executive director, and general counsel. But an email circulated by one commission member indicated that “commissioners weren’t made aware of this before it was sent out to the grantees.” While the mayor’s office plans to rescind the order, it’s not clear what that means for artists who have already signed and submitted the contracts with the censorship clause.
In a statement to City Paper, the DCCAH confirms Bowser’s rescindment of their amendment, and stands behind her decision. “The Bowser Administration stands firmly behind our shared DC Values and will always strive to uphold our mission of service to the District and its residents,” DCCAH spokesperson Jeffrey Scott tells City Paper. “The DC Commission on Arts and Humanities believes deeply in the right to freedom of expression and would never seek to violate that right by censoring the work of any grantee.”
David Furchgott, the president and CEO of International Arts & Artists, says that his organization, which got multiple grants from DCCAH, received several memos from the commission.
“We had signed and already sent off the other [grant] paperwork,” Furchgott says. “Then all of a sudden, this last week, this grant agreement amendment arrived. One by email one day, then two subsequent revisions, with retractions about what had been sent before.”
He adds, “These are post-contract amendments that they proposed.”
A commission staffer, or perhaps someone outside the commission, may have been triggered by a project by artist Marta Pérez-García. In October, the artist debuted an installation at the Frank D. Reeves Municipal Center. Her piece—an installation made with the D.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence, survivors, and other advocates, and with $50,000 in funds from the DCCAH—featured cloth rag dolls and silhouettes suggesting police outlines.
Pérez-García’s project generated complaints, according to broadcast news reports. The artist had intended to place the dolls on the Reeves Center floor, but suspended them instead, since the building is prone to flooding, according to WUSA9. Some viewers reportedly thought that the installation evoked lynching.
DIRT, a local critical arts writing collective, raised the alarm about the prospect of government censorship through Instagram posts that were shared widely on social media. Peter Nesbett, the executive director for the Washington Project for the Arts, drafted guidelines for how artists and organizations might respond to the amendment. (Final paperwork for grants is due November 16.)
“While I have great respect for the support that DCCAH provides to artists and organizations in D.C., this amendment was clearly a misstep,” Nesbett’s letter reads. “It is vague in its wording and violates our basic constitutional rights.”
Deepak Gupta, a constitutional lawyer working with the ACLU on behalf of D.C. artists, agreed that the content codes were likely an overreaction.
“Imagine if the D.C. Council passed a law that gave the Commission the authority to censor artworks, at its sole discretion, that it deemed to be lewd, lascivious, or overtly political. That law would be struck down by any court in the land,” Gupta says. “Is this different because it’s attached to the receipt of funds?”
While it may be a moot question now that the mayor has rescinded the order, Gupta says that precedent clearly demonstrates that the DCCAH amendment would violate artists’ constitutional rights. He compares the amendment to the effort in 1999 by then-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani to censor and evict the Brooklyn Museum of Art over an exhibition he considered offensive. Gupta also draws a parallel to the Helms Amendment, a 1989 push by then-Republican North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms to bar the National Endowment for the Arts from funding indecent or obscene art.
“Having decided to fund an arts organization, the government may not then penalize the organization by terminating funding after demanding that artwork the government deems offensive be removed,” Gupta says.
Additional reporting by Matt Cohen.
Correction: Due to a reporting error, this post original stated Rhona Friendman was the former DCCAH Commissioner for Ward 2. She is the current Ward 2 DCCAH Commissioner.