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When the coronavirus shutdowns began, Emerald Holman was fresh off a national tour with Step Afrika! and preparing for the dance company’s local “Step Xplosion” show. Roc Mikey and his go-go band, UCB, were playing weekly gigs at the Felicity Lounge on H Street NE and, he says, “starting to get our notoriety back.” Roc Lee was designing sound for upcoming university theater productions. Victoria Ford was working at the Anthem photographing concerts. Kayona Ebony Brown was putting together a series of multimedia novellas. Dylan Arredondo was midway through one acting contract and had four more lined up, work that he expected to last him “really through the end of 2020.”
Then all of it came to an abrupt halt. Artists were left to pick up the pieces of their disrupted careers. Without the revenue that traditionally flowed from in-person events, many found themselves laid off or furloughed and shut out of the galleries, theaters, and clubs where they’d previously shown work.
But one major source of support for the arts remained more or less reliable: The D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. Each year, the commission doles out millions of dollars in government grants for education efforts, building projects, and exhibitions, and 2020 was no different: While other funding dried up, the commission continued offering most of its regular grants, as well as a $2,500 coronavirus relief grant that was made available with federal support. That funding helped local artists pay their bills—and adapt to a socially distanced and digital-centric arts landscape.
Arredondo was one of 315artists to receive an individual arts and humanities fellowship grant from the DCCAH last year. Applicants to the fellowship, which is designed to support people in a variety of disciplines, are judged on work samples, resumes, and a range of other supplements—awards, publicity, programs they’ve attended. Recipients are granted up to $10,000 to spend as they will within the same fiscal year. Last summer, Arredondo received $4,000. That money “was vital for me to continue to live in D.C. rather than going back to live in my parents’ basement, and to continue to make work and not totally have to begin working in a different industry,” he says.
Within 10 days of the first stay-at-home orders going into effect, he says, he had started Performance Interface Lab, a workshop that produced a series of “virtual, interactive theater-for-one performances.” Audience members could tune in, one at a time, to participate in a half-hour video conferencing session.
Arredondo worked with nine pairs of artists, many of them D.C.-based freelancers out of work because of the pandemic, to produce about 350 “virtual interactions” last spring and summer. Arredondo says that the DCCAH grant allowed him to compensate himself for his time working on the project. “That way, any revenue that came in from audiences immediately went to the pocket of other artists involved,” he says. “So it allowed for the bounty to be shared more robustly.”
DCCAH grant money proved similarly critical in allowing Holman, the dancer, to pivot—and pay the other artists who helped her do so. When she was laid off by Step Afrika! for a month in April 2020, she “took the chance to continue with some of my own work,” she says. So even when Step Afrika! resumed practicing—masked and at a distance—she kept pursuing independent projects in her free time, leading virtual classes, and working on her own choreography.
“I wanted to bring art to people but to keep everyone safe and socially distant,” she says. She decided to return to a solo she had originally choreographed in 2018, set to a song by The Internet, and turn it into an on-camera performance.
She put much of her $4,000 fellowship grant toward the expenses, large and small, that made the video project possible: Rent for a studio where she could film, equipment for the shoot, hiring costs for videographers, and costuming.
“Money had been tight,” she says. “So it’s just really been a blessing that these grants remained available to us, because to dance for me is to live and breathe.”
But Holman also has issues with the way public arts funding is allocated in the city, informed by her experience living in Wards 7 and 8 for most of her life. “I do feel like the commission has done a good job to make money accessible,” she says. “But there is a bit of a gap in that, sometimes people don’t know that it’s available. I’ve been doing my best to bridge the gap by telling more and more artists.”
She’s also been pushing the city to make programming more accessible to young people east of the river. “Growing up, when I was living in Ward 7, for me to be able to access just basic dance education, I normally had to travel all the way across town,” she says, and she still sees “a lot of youth in Ward 7 and especially Ward 8, which has more children in it than any other ward across the city, that aren’t being stimulated artistically.”
Her critiques join an array of concerns about equity in D.C.’s government arts funding. Just two months ago, the Washington Post reported on internal accusations of racism and cronyism within the commission. Included were allegations that White commissioners disrespected their Black colleagues in the office and public meetings, and that well-established White arts organizations were given preference in funding over smaller groups or organizations run by people of color. Even more recently, one member, Natalie Hopkinson, publicly shared similar criticisms in a Medium post.
The same legislation that made DCCAH an agency independent of the mayor in 2019 also “gave a cooperative of the city’s wealthiest, most powerful arts organizations, most of them White, an overwhelming majority of them supporting European art forms, a permanent set-aside worth millions of dollars,” she wrote of the National Capital Arts Cohort before alleging that the same organizations were continually looped into any efforts she and other commissioners made to push back on that entitlement and improve equity.
A lack of funding for go-go music and musicians has also been a particular target of criticism: Though it’s been a significant part of the local culture for decades and formally designated as D.C.’s official music since 2019, go-go has received disproportionately little public investment and been left out of the earmarked NCAC funding, former DCCAH chair Charles C. Stephenson Jr. wrote in a Washington Post op-ed last summer.
“Before the District announced that go-go was the official music of D.C., it was hard for our culture to get funding and stuff like that from the city or anything. They really just didn’t support us at all,” says Mikey of UCB. “I’ve been here all my life, since the 1980s or so. I haven’t heard people talking about getting grants for go-go music over the years.”
And now? “I have to say it’s changing, because I was awarded a grant,” he says.
Actually, two, he clarifies. He’d never even tried to get DCCAH funding before last year, when he applied for and received both the arts and humanities fellowship and a Projects, Events, or Festivals grant. “It helped our band out a lot,” he says. Unable to play in person after the pandemic set in, UCB shifted toward livestreamed performances. The grant money went toward the filming equipment, engineers and technicians, and advertising that made that shift possible.
Last year, the D.C. government allocated $3 million in onetime funding for go-go, directed to Mayor Muriel Bowser’s Office of Television, Film, Music, and Entertainment; the D.C. Public Library; and Events DC. “This was an incredible start,” Hopkinson says, adding that she’s still waiting for the city to make a more permanent funding commitment. Mikey, too, hopes the city will continue and expand its investments.
“Every other state you go to where their music is still big, they’ve got programs funded and all types of stuff for artists and all that,” he says. “We never had that for go-go. So now that we’re the official music in D.C., it’s good to have that around to support us, because … I believe our whole sound and culture will go a lot further with some funding behind it.”
More change could be on the way: Mayor Bowser’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year, if approved, would open up the commission funds previously earmarked for the NCAC—meaning that money might be accessible for a more diverse group of local arts organizations moving forward.
But Angela Byrd, founder of the arts think tank MadeInTheDMV, is skeptical that significant progress has been made. “I think the funding is moreso about show,” she says of last year’s investment. “I’ve seen some incredible money spent on some go-go events. I’m not sure how it’s really helping the people of go-go.” To really support the musicians and bands that populate the scene, she says, the city should create a fellowship specifically for go-go artists, fund the production of new albums, or otherwise provide direct support for individuals.
“There shouldn’t be go-go artists starving right now,” she says.
Beyond go-go, she believes the city needs to change its approach to arts funding in both small and structural ways: improving education about grants, for instance, and allocating more money to for-profit organizations and gig workers. “I do think they’re trying,” she says. “It takes people stepping up. If we don’t talk about it, then they’re not going to change.”
Byrd herself has had trouble securing funding from the D.C. government for MadeInTheDMV; during the pandemic, she had to adapt her approach to programming and advocacy for local artists with little help from the city. “I showed what we’d lost and they gave me a thousand dollars,” she says of the D.C. Small Business Microgrants made available last spring. And of the DCCAH, she says, “I have not been funded by any of the art organizations since being a business in D.C.”
Taurus Evans made his pandemic pivot without DCCAH funding—and while battling an unemployment backlog, too. Since the city shut down early last year, he’s focused on creating vector illustrations to post to social media and, for the first time in his career, started documenting his artistic process on video and making his own music.
“I’ve applied for grants recently, but the applications are really extensive,” he says. He recounts the many steps he’s had to take to navigate government websites and to acquire a Certificate of Clean Hands, which confirms he doesn’t owe more than $100 to the city in fees, fines, taxes, and penalties.
“There are too many strings and too many hoops,” Byrd says.
In the past, artists also had to undergo criminal background checks to be considered for grants. Last year, that requirement was removed for most applicants, though it remained in place for the coronavirus relief grants that became available in May 2020 and for any project that involves children. And, Loose Lips reported in June, commission members have expressed a desire to bring it back across the board. Hopkinson, for one, says, “It is my hope that that never comes back again.”
She criticized the inclusion of background checks and Clean Hands certifications in her Medium post, noting that artists “could have their applications thrown out for falling victim to a racist criminal justice system or having too many unpaid parking tickets.”
Fifteen years after he was incarcerated, Evans says of required background checks like these, “I find it interesting that no matter what I’ve done to serve the time—and it’s done, there’s no probation, I’m good, I’ve served my debt to society—it always comes back up … We always change, so comparing someone to who they were, especially after they’ve gone through the effort to be better, it doesn’t help. It constantly keeps you under this thumb.”
Even for artists who aren’t grappling with public debt or criminal records, the application process can be daunting and difficult to understand, as it long was for Ford, the concert photographer. For years she didn’t even consider applying for the DCCAH grants because, “Honestly, I didn’t think I qualified,” she says. “My photo resume wasn’t long enough. I didn’t have enough exhibitions under my belt. I wasn’t working on a large scale … It was a little intimidating for a while.”
A fellow artist ultimately changed her mind, pushing her to apply and insisting she was qualified. The artist also pointed out the apparent lack of diversity among grant-seekers. “She was like, ‘The workshop, it was predominantly White people,’” Ford says. “There was only one other Black person in the whole thing besides herself. And she was like, ‘No, you need to apply.’”
Ford secured $6,750 as an arts and humanities fellow two years ago, and another $9,000 last year. The pandemic dealt her a series of blows: She was laid off by the Anthem; live music performances, the main focus of her work, shut down; and, to top it off, she contracted COVID on March 13.
The absence of regular concerts drove her to “seek out something a little different,” she says. She photographed a local nonprofit’s farm and took headshots for their staff members and volunteers. She went out to shoot Small Wooden Box, a livestream concert series featuring local artists. And she showed a selection of her work at an exhibit in Petworth. The grant money allowed her to purchase prints and frames she needed for the exhibit and a little equipment. She also used it to pay off a few of her bills. “I wanted to make it stretch,” she says.
“When work is sparse, it helps tremendously in just being able to survive,” says Lee, the sound designer, who received a $5,750 arts and humanities fellowship grant.
Lee works primarily in theater; when the pandemic struck, he shifted from in-person performance spaces to digital ones along with the rest of the industry and continued to design sound for the university productions he was attached to. He also collaborated with Rorschach Theatre on less traditional performances, curating an interactive theatrical series, Distance Frequencies, that called on subscribers to carry boxes of physical artefacts to specific destinations around the city to experience the stories.
The grant “helps relieve the pressure of ‘do I have enough work?’” Lee says. “Just having an extra cushion psychologically helps a lot.”
“To have that couple thousand dollars stashed away that you might get with the grant, that helps to just have that there as a security blanket,” says recipient Kayona Ebony Brown, the multimedia artist. For nearly eight years, Brown has been working to create a multimedia franchise, Of Music and Men, based on her own experience running a record company and attempting to date as a young woman in D.C. She applied for funding twice unsuccessfully before securing her first fellowship in 2019; since then, she’s put the money toward producing self-published books and podcast episodes. The grants were “actually super instrumental,” she says, contributing to small essentials like software and transportation.
Someday, she hopes she can realize her initial vision for the story: a network television series that would introduce viewers to a side of D.C. they don’t usually see; the side where “real people actually live.”
“I would say, all of these things are not perfect,” Brown says about her experiences with the DCCAH and another government arts program, 202Creates. “But I just have nothing but appreciation for what the city has done. I feel like it has at least tried, continually, to do something to help artists.”
Correction: A previous version of this story referenced Angela Byrd receiving a grant from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. That money was a DC Small Business Recovery Microgrant from the office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development.