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Will Washington DC’s Art Commission Fall Victim to a Fight Between the Mayor and City Council?

When an ambitious roadmap for transforming Washington DC into an arts mecca was unveiled last month, it should have been a political coup; instead, it may have triggered a political collapse.

The Washington Monument (image via Pedro Szekely/Flickr)

When Mayor Muriel Bowser last month unveiled her ambitious roadmap for transforming Washington DC into an arts mecca, it should have been a political coup; instead, it may have triggered a political collapse.

The mayor has instrumentalized culture as an economic driver of the capital’s fortunes ever since taking office in 2014 and embarking on the creation of her Cultural Plan one year later. Deference to what she has described as “the cultural economy” has earned Bowser few fans from the arts community, which has characterized the mayor’s proposals as siphoning funds away from the fine arts and into the pockets of small businesses.

But her latest advance on the independence of the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities (DCCAH) has triggered a string of protests and battle cries across the city — from artists, administrators, and city council members — who see Bowser’s reforms as threatening the financial lifeblood of their arts community. Among the proposed changes: giving the mayor direct authority over the commission by turning it into a new Department of Arts and Humanities; expanding its mission to include cosmetology and culinary arts; and scrapping millions of dollars in grants for replacement with loans.

Last year, the city’s Council created a dedicated funding stream that directed 0.3 percent of the DC sales tax revenue to the commission, noting that adequate “funding is a cornerstone of any public arts program.” However, the mayor’s 2020 fiscal year budget would end this financing scheme; the commission’s executive director Terrie Rouse-Rosario (who was appointed by Bowser) told the Council during a hearing that the repeal would improve transparency and provide more flexibility for her organization. Rouse-Rosario later wrote that she found a dedicated funding stream to be unnecessary for the commission. The budget would restore funding to DCCAH as mayoral appropriation.

This ruffled the feathers of Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, who rebuked the proposal. And in early May, the Council’s oversight committee sided issued a formal response in their budget report, saying, in part, that “the repeal of the dedicated funding would create more angst and anxiety in the arts and humanities community.”

Bowser’s proposed 2020 budget balances by transferring funds from one place to another and zeroing out other costs. If passed, it would eliminate some $8.3 million in commission grants but introduce $8.4 million in funding for the Cultural Plan, including $5 million for a Cultural Facilities Fund and $2 million for an Innovation and Entrepreneurship Loan Fund.

The standoff has pitted the mayor’s office and her installed leadership at DCCAH against commissioners and arts organizers within the city. During a public meeting last month, the Washington City Paper reports that Rouse-Rosario pronounced, “I am the commission!” during a heated exchange with Josef Palermo, a Ward 1 commissioner who expressed his concern about the state of DCCAH. The comment was not recorded in the city’s official minutes and a staffer for the Mayor’s Office of Talent and Appointments quickly amended the statement to say, “We are the Commission. The Staff, everybody, this agency is the Commission.” But that’s not how most arts organizations are feeling.

“Every artist and arts organization in the city that I’ve spoken with over the past few weeks is alarmed by the mayor’s treatment of the DCCAH, and the acting executive director’s efforts to destroy her own organization,” Peter Nesbett, the executive director of the Washington Project for the Arts, told Hyperallergic over email. Nesbett says he has found solidarity in his community by joining the steering committee for the activist group Arts Action DC and becoming a co-founder of the DC Arts Forum. “The arts community as a whole wants to see the DCCAH commissioners (the board) re-empowered to exercise the authority they were vested with under the 1975 law that founded the Commission.”

But the mayor’s office disagrees with that interpretation of the Commission’s responsibilities, pointing to a sentence in the DCCAH’s bylaws that read:

In order to evaluate and initiate action on matters relating to the arts, to encourage programs and the development of programs which promote progress in the arts, there is established in the Office of the Mayor, in the District of Columbia, a commission to be known as the Commission of the Arts and Humanities.

For the last 40 years, however, the Commission has largely operated as a semiautonomous organization receiving its funding from the city while operating outside of the mayor’s office. Some public officials say the discrepancy resulted from the messy administrative shuffle that occurred in the 1970s after Congress handed the reigns of the capital over to local officials. Regardless, there are now plans within the Council to update the legislation to clarify the agency’s independence.

“I want to see the independence of this agency upheld and restored, and I want to see the commissioners empowered,” one senior-level official told Hyperallergic. “We need to pull back these bureaucrats from overreaching.”

Accusations of executive overreach have plagued the mayor’s office since it began exerting a heavier hand on DCCAH. Last November, artists and civil rights groups accused officials of attempting to censor the freedom of expression of their grantees. The organization made a last-minute change in the language of their contracts that would allow it to rescind funding on any project deemed lewd, vulgar, overtly political, or excessively violent to shield the institution from risk of liability. After the censorship push made national headlines and attracted criticism from groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, the mayor’s office quashed the controversial amendment and described it as an “over-correction.”

Reportedly, these issues extend into the DCCAH offices. Washington City Paper interviewed nearly a dozen current and former staff and commissioners who described the organization as fallen into a state of internal anxiety and disarray. Hyperallergic independently confirmed with sources inside the organization — who spoke on the condition of anonymity — that tensions are still high.

Five years ago, Bowser appointed Arthur Espinoza as its executive director, but he stepped aside in June of last year and the agency has since had two different acting executive directors. Espinoza’s tenure with DCCAH was polarizing. Sources say his management style was extreme, saying that he would verbally abuse commissioners during meetings, yelling at them.

On April 18, 2018, a group of seven DCCAH staffers sent a letter to Espinoza and copied the commission’s human resources advisor, along with senior-level Bowser administration staff, including Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development Brian Kenner and City Administrator Rashad Young.

“Each of the five people you have fired during your time at DCCAH have been Black … four of whom were Black women. You likely had your reasons for firing each person, but combined, they constitute a pattern that is in direct opposition to our core values,” reads the letter, which was obtained by Washington City Paper and independently confirmed by one of its authors to Hyperallergic.

In early 2018, Espinoza quietly stepped down from his post and Bowser appointed Angie Gates, the Director of the Office of Cable Television, Film, Music and Entertainment, as DCCAH’s interim director. She was in charge when the censorship drama unfolded and was soon replaced by Rouse-Rosario in December 2018.

Six months into the job, the new executive director has her own take on the controversies she has inherited. Responding to the legacy of Espinoza’s tenure: “I’ve seen the letter to my predecessor, and that was distressing. But what bothered me most was a group of staff feeling like the director of their agency didn’t have the right to make decisions about staffing. It’s a little outside of their lane to tell their boss who he can hire and fire.” She added, “A hostile work environment — that I don’t particularly see.”

Addressing the response against the DCCAH for expanding its mission to include cosmetology and the culinary arts, she says that as an arts professional with 40 years of experience, “I think it’s always unfair when people turn their noses up at someone.”

But critics of the Bowser administration have certainly turned their noses up at how the city intends to appropriate its dollars. Artists have accused the mayor of relying on economic and real estate investment firms to underwrite her Cultural Plan in a way that disrespects the city’s heritage.

“The artists have to be the foundation of their own communities and the city has to get behind and listen,” the DC-based artist Sheldon Scott wrote to Hyperallergic via email, responding to the DCCAH dispute. “Arts and Humanities funding has to be protected and preserved for the practices as they are essential to our understanding of ourselves now and the understating of our legacies in the future.”

With a cornerstone of her administrative legacy hanging in the balance, Bowser has dug her heels into a fight with the Council over the fate of DCCAH. Executive staff with the agency have released a letter that portrays the Council’s own actions to clarify the organization’s independence as dangerously counterproductive. The note claims that existing staff would have to relinquish their government benefits and longevity, relocate to new office spaces, discontinue current financial planning, and cancel popular events like the Black History Month Celebration and SummerSet concerts while laying off relevant staff members.

“Overall, this seems like a scare tactic on the part of agency leadership, as if they are saying this legislation ‘would be the end of the CAH as we know it,’” reads a response to the letter written by commissioners and members of the DC arts community. The rebuttal was sent to members of the DC Council and later forwarded to Hyperallergic. “There are dozens of independent agencies in the Government of the District of Columbia that are not under the control of the mayor.”

During this time of year, fierce battles over the city budget are common in Washington DC, and Rouse-Rosario isn’t taken the escalating attacks personally. “What I would say to the arts community is that the mayor has doubled the amount of money [through DCCAH] to over $30 million. I would say that we gave 628 grants last year with a very small staff,” she explained, defending her organization. “Now, everyone wants to get in the middle of how it’s given and who gets the money. It’s a very typical response to success.”

But artists believe their anger is driven not by envy but concern for DCCAH; they are worried that the mayor’s Cultural Plan and her efforts to reform the agency fundamentally misunderstand the value of the city’s culture outside of an economic lens. And when asked if the mayor’s proposals were ultimately about helping businesses, Rouse-Rosario told Hyperallergic yes. “This is about helping the economy of Washington DC,” she added.

Activists are hoping for a political win over the mayor, and that she doesn’t allow the organization to lose its funding. For his part, Nesbett is optimistic that the city Council won’t let that happen. “If the CAH did lose funding, it would be the last straw.”

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