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Artists Accuse DC Arts Commission of Censoring Free Speech for Grant Money

The Commission recently told its grantees that it could terminate any funding interpreted as “lewd, lascivious, vulgar, overtly political, and/or excessively violent.” The ACLU may sue on First Amendment grounds if the language is not repealed.

The Washington Project for the Arts stands to lose $112,700 in funding from the DCCAH by not signing the revised grantee contract (photo courtesy the Washington Project for the Arts)

The trickle-down economics of political intimidation appear to have finally reached the otherwise vibrant community of artists in Washington DC. Recipients of the city’s Commission on the Arts and Humanities (CAH or DCCAH) grants recently received an amendment to their contracts that would allow the organization to rescind funding on any project “deemed to be lewd, vulgar, overtly political, and/or excessively violent.” Explaining the change to grantees over email, the organization’s senior grants officer Heran Sereke-Brhan said that the new language was needed to avoid “artistic expression that has placed CAH at risk of liability.”

The DCCAH operates under the District of Columbia’s Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development with a 2018 fiscal year budget of nearly $30 million in district and federal funding. Established in 1967, the organization predominantly focuses on providing grants to art nonprofits and individual artists. According to the Commission’s 2015 Strategic Plan, its mission is to “serve and advance the diverse cultural interests of the residents and workers of the District of Columbia,” with a vision of enhancing the quality of life in DC “by fostering the conditions where creative enterprises can prosper.”

Now, sources indicate to Hyperallergic that the ACLU is currently investigating a possible lawsuit against the organization on First Amendment grounds relating to the censure of free speech and viewpoint discrimination.

These changes to the DCCAH’s guidelines have triggered fears in Washington DC’s art community that the second wave of the culture wars has officially touched down in the district. Critics of the Trump administration have worried for years that the White House would make due on its promise to defund the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) when given the chance. Fortunately, the president’s political rhetoric has not matched congressional willpower; the legislative body actually added $3 million to the NEA’s budget for a total $153 million in its March 2018 omnibus spending bill.

Last week, Trump nominated interim NEA chair Mary Anne Carter as the organization’s permanent head. Carter is a conservative political consultant and former chief policy advisor to Florida Governor Rick Scott; she has virtually no background in the arts and has focused her interim efforts at the NEA toward expanding its Creative Forces program, an art therapy service for US veterans recovering from PTSD and traumatic brain injuries. Despite her seemingly innocuous agenda, skeptics believe that Trump has vested Carter with the mission of dismantling the NEA from the inside-out. Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson deployed a similar strategy in his office, gutting the State Department of its diplomats and experts in droves.

Only a few days elapsed between Carter’s appointment and the DCCAH’s revised contract rollout. The short time window between these two events invites the question of whether or not the Commission is preemptively trying to shield itself from the conservative scruples of the NEA’s chairwoman. (In the fiscal year 2017, DCCAH received 3.2% of its funding from the NEA, or nearly $690,000.)

Artists in Washington are worried that the DCCAH contracts will stymie their freedom of speech and artistic expression. Peter Nesbett, executive director of the Washington Project for the Arts, equates the new guidelines with the controversial 1989 attempt to censure artist recipients of NEA funding by conservatives who find their work immoral. (Nesbett’s organization actually exhibited Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment after the Corcoran Gallery canceled it, for fear of political reprisal that year.)

Interior of the Washington Project for the Arts (image courtesy the WPA)

“We have a great relationship with DCCAH … I have no bone to pick with them,” Nesbett explained to Hyperallergic over email. “I probably should keep my mouth shut but we are an artist-driven organization with a history of standing up against efforts to curtail freedom of creative expression.”

Nesbett notes that this latest controversy will inevitably hurt the city’s ability to retain artists in the DC area. He points to a recent Change.org petition demanding a DC Cultural Plan that would help support professional artists in the community.

The call to action specifically mentions the DCCAH as the city agency with the expertise to lead such an initiative. The group of artists responsible for the petition has now posted an update about the contract change, speculating that it “could be a defensive attempt to avoid a future clash between DC’s mostly liberal artists and the rising tide of conservatives in our nation’s capital,” or it “could be an intimidation tactic to silence artists.”

The National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) has also issued a statement regarding the updated contract, noting that “it is unclear what inspired the amendment. The updated clause was sent directly to grantees, but has not been approved by the Commissioners themselves. Whatever its exact origin, this attack on artistic freedom in our politically polarized times raises the sinister specter of renewed attempts at government censorship of the arts. ”

Deepak Gupta is a Washington DC attorney working with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to investigate whether or not the DCCAH has possibly violated the First Amendment with its revised guidelines. He tells Hyperallergic that the contract’s new language “clearly allows the Commission to selectively terminate a grant.”

“Any artwork or writing that criticizes the president would be grounds for termination, for example, so the government would have sole discretion in describing what’s overtly political art,” explains Gupta. “This is much more troubling from a First Amendment perspective because this condition was imposed after grants were announced.”

Unless the DCCAH rescinds the new contract language, Gupta and the ACLU plan to mount a legal challenge against the organization. Gupta says that the case could likely reach the Supreme Court if litigated.

Note: The DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s multiple inquiries about the contract revision. This article will be updated when their official response is received.

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