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DC Commission Reverses Course After Attempt to Censor Artists

The mayor’s office rescinded the controversial amendment, and grantees have received a letter explaining it as an “over-correction” just moments after the censorship push made national headlines.

The Washington Project for the Arts, one of the nonprofits that led the fight against the censorship amendment (photo courtesy the Washington Project for the Arts)

Just days after the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities (DCCAH) issued an eleventh-hour amendment on its already-signed contracts with grantees that prohibited “lewd, lascivious, vulgar, overtly political, and/or excessively violent” projects from being funded, Mayor Muriel Bowser’s office rescinded the controversial guidelines.

On Thursday evening, DCCAH sent a letter to all its grantees explaining that the amendment was an “over-correction” and has been officially rescinded.

Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evan initially confirmed the news to the Washington City Paper. “It should never have been sent out in the first place,” he said. “We should not be censoring artwork or anything of that nature. It was not well thought out.”

Evans added that Rhona Friedman, an attorney and Ward 2 DCCAH commissioner alerted him to the amendment. He later spoke with the mayor’s chief of staff, John Falcicchio, who confirmed that the amendment would be rescinded.

Friedman’s apparent dismay about the updated contract agreement gives credence to rumors that the censorship push came from inside DCCAH’s staff and not from the commissioners overseeing the organization. There are, however, conflicted accounts. The contract was signed by Angie Gates, the commission’s interim executive director, and general counsel. But an email has circulated over the last few days by one commission member who says that “commissioners weren’t made aware of this before it was sent out to the grantees.”

Responding to Hyperallergic’s request for comment, DCCAH spokesperson Jeffrey Scott indirectly confirmed the amendment’s rescindment in a message of support to the city’s arts community:

“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. 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.
Mayor Bowser’s steadfast commitment to our diverse and vibrant Arts and Humanities community will not waiver. We look forward to a continued investment and collaboration with our District creative community.”

Although the mayor’s office plans to rescind the order, it’s not expressly clear what that would mean for artists and nonprofits that have already resubmitted their contracts with the censorships clause intact.

The quick demise of the amended contract is largely a credit to DC’s intimate network of artists and nonprofits. Groups like the Washington Project of the Arts and International Arts & Artists alerted the media to the story while a local critical arts writing collective, DIRT, publicized the censorship controversy on social media.

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