Scholar and member of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities Natalie Hopkinson at a panel discussion in 2019.
Natalie Hopkinson at a panel discussion in 2019. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Natalie Hopkinson was going to let D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson‘s comments slide the first time. But after Mendelson parroted her thoughts about the “mess” within the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities for a second time, the arts commissioner and scholar had to say something.

It started with Mendelson’s comments in a recent Washington Post article, in which Hopkinson, a previous City Paper contributor, says he repeated her gloomy view of the commission’s internal drama as its members work to make funding for the arts more equitable. The Post report revealed “accusations of cronyism and racism” as Reginald Van Lee prepares to take over as chair. Hopkinson says she mentioned the tension during Cora Masters Barry‘s “Bustin’ Loose” birthday party, which Mendelson also attended. Barry, widow of the late Mayor-for-Life Marion Barry, is also a member of the arts commission. Mendelson tells Loose Lips he’s never named Hopkinson publicly, “but that’s up to her to take credit for it.”

In the Post, Mendelson noted the $38 million grant budget that the commission controls and hinted that Council oversight may be necessary if commissioners couldn’t play nice with each other. Then came the report out of Mendelson’s Committee of the Whole. It again quotes “one commissioner who publicly referred to the Commission as a ‘mess,'” and expresses concern “about the ability of the current Commissioners to get along and work constructively.” Mendelson says in the report that the problem seems to have arrived 18 months ago—about the time Hopkinson and Barry joined the commission, though it doesn’t name them—and are “more likely about personalities than substantive issues.”

Mendelson’s report notes the work of a task force focused on bringing equity and inclusion to arts funding, and writes that “the members of the commission seem to support the same goals, but are fighting with each other as if they don’t.”

According to Hopkinson, that “mess” is the chairman’s doing. She responded to the chairman’s comments in a Medium post published Friday afternoon.

“Since the Chairman never bothered to ask me directly what I meant, and he is clearly confused about the ‘substantive issues’ at hand, some facts are in order,” Hopkinson writes, calling out a “casual culture of white privilege on the commission.”

“Of course, no one living today created white supremacy, but today’s public officials must be held accountable for separate-and-unequal arts policies that tilt the scales in favor of the rich, white and powerful, while mostly locking out the Black and marginalized,” she continues. “In the 18 months that I have served, I along with my colleagues on the Commission, as well as a CAH Equity and Inclusion Task Force, have worked diligently to undo this ‘mess.'”

One of the most glaring issues, according to Hopkinson and others on the commission, is a 28 percent set-aside for the National Capital Arts Cohort. The cohort is largely made up of predominantly White arts organizations such as Arena Stage, Ford’s Theatre Society, Shakespeare Theatre, the Washington Ballet, and Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens. Though the cohort also includes Step Afrika! and GALA Hispanic Theatre, none are based in wards 7 or 8.

The set-aside was written into the law along with the 2019 legislation that made the commission independent of the mayor’s office. This year, the 21 members of the NCAC split $7.3 million and on average, each received about $349,000 in grants. The average grant amount outside NCAC’s pot of money was $40,907, according to the Post, and 90 percent of grants were awarded to organizations based west of the Anacostia River.

The set-aside was intended to make funding more equitable, Mendelson tells LL in a recent interview. The organizations in the NCAC would previously receive earmarked grant dollars by virtue of their political connections and lobbying efforts, which made for an unequal and unfair system. A cynical observer might argue that the set-aside only codified the unequal distribution by exempting those organizations in the cohort from the competitive grant process. Mendelson says no one objected to the idea when the bill came up for a hearing.

“This left the unwashed masses to fight over the remainder of the budget, where artists were forced to actually compete for grants and submit a signed ‘Arrest and Criminal Conviction Record,'” Hopkinson writes in her Medium post. “The Council gave the richest and most powerful arts organizations a permanent entitlement. Meanwhile, everyone else could have their applications thrown out for falling victim to a racist criminal justice system or having too many unpaid parking tickets.”

LL will note that the commission removed criminal background checks for grant applicants last year, but the commission staff has expressed a desire to bring it back.

Hopkinson also takes issue with the solution Mendelson has proposed. In a bill introduced in late May, the chairman proposes a new funding scheme that Hopkinson says in her post still includes “special consideration” for NCAC in facilities and building grants. She also writes that in the lead up to the new bill’s introduction, Mendelson and outgoing commission chair Kay Kendall “explicitly refused to repeal this arrangement until we consulted with these powerful organizations.”

Mendelson tells LL that NCAC’s specific mention in the bill is a “drafting error,” and the new proposal effectively eliminates the cohort as an entity that’s exempt from the competitive grant application process. The bill also authorizes the commission to pay a stipend to panelists that judge grant applications, a measure intended to bring greater diversity to the process.

The chairman denies that he required the commission to specifically negotiate with grantees before he would change the law. When he began hearing issues with NCAC’s set-aside, Mendelson says he told the commission to “work it out and come back with a consensus. That’s not the same as requiring the commission to negotiate with grantees. That’s just not accurate.”

Kendall echoes Mendelson’s characterization. She says the goal was to get support for a new grant distribution scheme from the entire arts community. “We shared our plan with several groups including NCAC, but it was not exclusive to them, and it really wasn’t a negotiation,” Kendall says. “It was just an opportunity to ask for their support.”

Hopkinson points out that the commission voted in June 2020 to remove the NCAC set-aside. But Mendelson didn’t introduce legislation to do so until May 2021, after the commission heard from NCAC organizations during their March 2021 meeting.

The commission will meet for a final time with Kendall as its chair this evening and is expected to vote on a strategic plan. Hopkinson says she only received an updated draft last Thursday and had not had a chance to read it by the time she spoke with LL Monday morning. From her perspective, the plan is potentially compromised by the consultant who drafted it, David Galligan. When Galligan presented a draft to the commission during its April meeting, he mentioned how in the course of his interviews, he kept hearing about the need for a champion for the arts within government, such as former Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans.

Hopkinson was stunned at the mention of Evans’ name, which, in her mind, is synonymous with the old way of doing things.

“Why are we politicizing this when we’re talking about how to serve the arts community?” Hopkinson says. “There was a certain coziness and familiarity with the consultant, and some of the stakeholders. We just need a fresh start.”