Seats at Arena Stage, which will now require patrons to show proof of vaccination.
Credit: Darrow Montgomery / file

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Ford’s Theatre Director Paul Tetreault feels like his “good faith” has been taken advantage of. His willingness to “compromise and come together” has been disregarded.

Tetreault expressed those frustrations in an email to several other area arts leaders about the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities’ new grant distribution formula, approved earlier this week. The plan spreads the commission’s nearly $16.5 million in available public grant funding across arts organizations this year according to their respective budgets. The scheme aims to distribute funds more evenly to small and midsized organizations and reduces the amount of funding available to larger organizations that previously enjoyed a set-aside pot worth millions of dollars.

The commission’s new formula comes shortly after the D.C. Council approved changes to the law that removes the set-aside for a select group of large, mostly White-led arts organizations in D.C., of which Ford’s Theatre is one. The law previously reserved 28 percent of the commission’s grant budget for members of the select group, known as the National Capital Art Cohort, who applied for and received the funds outside of the competitive application process that everyone else goes through. In Fiscal Year 2021, grants to the 21 NCAC organizations totaled $8.3 million, an average of more than $395,000 each.

Under the arts commission’s new grant distribution formula, organizations with budgets over $1 million compete for a pot of $7.2 million, and grants can range from $125,000 up to $200,000; organizations with budgets under $1 million compete for a pot of $9.3 million, and grants range from $40,000 to $140,000.

In his email to several other NCAC members, Tetreault writes that “our original discussions with [the arts commission] staff involved ‘suggested top grants’ for the largest organizations of approximately $300k and tiering down from that point based on budget size. We calculated that, under this system, our grants would be cut by approx. $3M—to which we agreed.”

That last part, where a potential grantee agreed to the way an independent commission awards taxpayer money, sounds to Loose Lips a lot like the kind of entitlement that the Council sought to remove when it eliminated NCAC’s 28 percent set-aside.

Tetreault writes that the commission’s approved plan, with a maximum allowance of $200,000 for the largest organizations, amounts to “over a $5M reduction in our awards—a 61% reduction from last year.”

Ford’s Theatre took in $25.9 million in total revenue in 2019 and has assets worth $62 million, according to the theater’s tax document posted to its website. Tetreault pulled in more than $605,000, tax records show.

“Our good faith has clearly been taken advantage of and our willingness to come together, in my opinion, has been disregarded,” Tetreault writes to fellow theater heads. “My interpretation is that the Council language and law have been maintained—but the spirit of our agreement has been violated.”

He concludes with assurances that the group will begin meeting after Labor Day to strategize for next year’s budget cycle.

“I believe there will be many Councilmembers who are NOT happy about this development—including the Chairman,” Tetreault writes.

Neither Tetreault nor Ford’s communications department responded to LL’s emails or phone calls.

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson says he had discussions with Tetreault and commission staff a few months ago with respect to removing NCAC’s set-aside. But, Mendelson says, he did not make any agreements with Tetreault or other members of NCAC and notes that the Council does not control who gets public arts funding, the commission does.

“But I think there was an expectation that while the large arts organizations would get a cut, it wouldn’t be 60 percent,” Mendelson says.

Asked if Tetreault’s assertion that he would “NOT be happy” about the commission’s grant distribution plan is true, the chairman confirms. “Because I think that we have to support all our arts organizations, and I think a 60 percent cut is a hard hit.”

Arent Fox lobbyist Jon Bouker is copied on Tetreault’s email. In the months leading up to the change in the law that removed NCAC’s set-aside, Mendelson says he met with several arts organizations. Bouker was a frequent attendee of those meetings.

Lobbying records show Arena Stage, one of the NCAC members, hired Bouker on a $5,000 monthly retainer. From April through early June, Bouker met and talked the Mendelson and his staff about “legislative action regarding DC support for the arts.” Bouker also met with At-Large Councilmember Robert White about “administrative action in support of arts organizations’ eligibility for DC grants,” on behalf of Arena Stage, lobbying disclosures show. Through August 18, Arena has paid Bouker $30,000.

Ford’s Theatre is another of Bouker’s clients. Lobbying disclosures show that the theater paid him a rate of $3,200 an hour to lobby the D.C. Department of Transportation on “administrative action regarding DC support for 10th Street wayfinding signage.” Bouker did not respond to LL’s email.

For former arts commissioner Josef Palermo, Tetreault’s email “brazenly illustrates an ongoing issue of entitlement among the city’s biggest and most funded arts institutions—many of whom have access to wealth and capital that small and mid-sized arts organizations can only dream of,” he writes in an email to LL. Palermo calls the theatre director’s comments “grotesque and truly shameful.”

Palermo believes Tetreault’s name-dropping of the Council chairman is a threat to the commission’s independence from elected officials. Mendelson helped establish that separation with a bill in 2019. The legislation also established NCAC’s set-aside.

“I believe all of DC’s arts and humanities communities should take notice of how the NCAC, under Paul Tetreault’s leadership, poses a threat to the hard-won independence of the District’s arts agency,” Palermo writes.

Peter Nesbett, executive director of the Washington Project for the Arts, echoes Palermo’s thoughts.

“I find the sense of superiority and hubris of a small handful of cultural leaders in our city appalling,” he writes in an email. “What we are dealing with is an almost-colonial mind-set that is emboldened by its ability to forge backroom deals with the city council, and play puppet-master to the [arts commission] and its commissioners. Fortunately, the [commission] is now boldly independent and marching to its own drum.”

Nesbett applauds the commission’s new formula.

“While the new funding allocation was conceived during the pandemic—and in the wake of the social upheaval of 2020— it is much more than a short-term solution,” he says via email. “It is the first step in what I hope will be a truly meaningful investment in DC’s cultural eco-system, one particularly attuned to the needs of those organizations most aligned with the intersts of the city’s artists.”

Nesbett was similarly quoted in the Washington Post, which also quoted an anonymous “leader of a NCAC organization,” saying they felt “betrayed.”

“We agreed to go back [to lesser grants], but to a point,” the unnamed leader told the paper.

Commissioner Natalie Hopkinson says the Post‘s framing of the commission’s action as “cuts” to NCAC organizations is misleading. The new formula brings equity to how the public funds are distributed, she says.

“It no longer matters how well-connected you are, whether you can afford to hire a lobbyist, or have special relationships with the Council chair or CAH staff and chair,” she says. “Now all arts orgs have to compete for funding against orgs of similar size.”

Princess Mhoon‘s experience applying for grant funding during the pandemic is illustrative of the equity Hopkinson is talking about.

Mhoon, an award winning choreographer and CEO of Princess Mhoon Dance Institute, applied to the commission for a $70,000 rent relief grant but was rejected, she says, due to a disagreement over her application.

The funds would not have come from the same pot of money that NCAC’s organizations were entitled to receive without competition. The difference, Mhoon says, is the hoops she had to jump that members of the cohort did not.

“Among the BIPOC arts organizations in D.C. there’s overwhelming opinion and conversation about how the commission does not support the Black organizations,” she tells LL. “Most organizations don’t have space, let alone get funding, let alone have opportunities to capacity build.”

Through her dance institute, Mhoon provides classes and summer camps, designs curriculum, and organizes performances around the city. She’s provided after-school dance programs and provides ballet curriculum for the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation. The institute primarily serves Black youth.

During the pandemic she started falling behind on rent, and without a boost from the commission, she says she’s still in arrears. The institute is housed in Perry Street Preparatory Public Charter School. Her landlord is allowing her to stay while she searches for rent money.

Mhoon says at full capacity, her institute had a $1 million budget. They’re now operating at less than a third of that capacity. She worries it could take five to 10 years to fully recover from the pandemic.

Mhoon acknowledges that she’s received grant funding from the commission in the past. The highest sum was around $10,000, she says.

“There are organizations where nobody is looking at their paperwork or looking at their budgets to see if there’s a need,” Mhoon says. “They pass go because they’re part of a club.”

Time will tell whether the commission’s new formula will bring more equity to public funding of the arts. Hopkinson, an outspoken critic of the old system, is optimistic.

“I think this is a great start,” she in a written statement shared with LL. “There is a lot more work ahead. I am really proud of my colleagues on the Arts Commission and especially the Grants Committee (which I am not on). These folks have worked for months to figure out a more equitable way forward.”