In Brief

DC Mayor Clashes With Arts Commission, Changes the Locks on Art Collection

After announcing that she would create a separate arts organization under her control, Mayor Muriel Bowser changed the locks on the storage area that houses the commission’s prized art collection, preventing staff from accessing it.

The Washington Monument (image via Pedro Szekely/Flickr)

Washington DC’s Commission on Arts and Humanities (DCCAH) has become a thorn in the side of the city’s mayor, Muriel Bowser. Last week, the public official escalated her attacks against the funding organization after a summer stalemate in the DC Council quashed her efforts to turn artist grants into loans that would be available for an expanded pool of applicants, including those in the food and cosmetology industries.

And how has Bowser responded to critics who say her plan denigrates the city’s arts community and siphons what little support they have to small businesses and start-ups? By changing the locks on the storage area that houses the commission’s prized art collection, preventing staff from accessing it.

Bowser took control of the collection without warning on August 30 — the same day that she announced the launch of a new Office of Creative Affairs that she intends to become “the central coordination body for the reconstituted [arts commission],” according to the official announcement. The 3,000-piece collection includes works by artists such as Alma Thomas, Sam Gilliam, and Linn Meyers. The works are typically lent to government agencies for display in their offices. Limited access to the facilities have since been restored, but the city’s council members have since questioned the sincerity and legality of the mayor’s actions.

“It is not based in law and, in fact has no legal authority behind it,” DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson wrote in a strongly worded letter to Bowser. “Your office must restore unfettered access to the Arts Commission and cease laying any claim to its art.”

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. That didn’t sit well with the city’s Council. Tensions flared during an April public meeting where Rouse-Rosario was heard exclaiming: “I am the commission!” during the heated exchange with Josef Palermo, a Ward 1 commissioner who expressed concerns about her plans.

DCCAH has an expected 2020 budget of $25 million. That money is now at stake in the ongoing tug-of-war between the mayor’s office and the city’s Council. While Bowser believes that she should have control over the organization, which she would turn into an advisory group, the city’s Council has added language into the upcoming budget that would make it an independent agency similar to the city’s public library system. Such a measure would remove DCCAH from Bowser’s war chest and respect what the Council says is a four-decade tradition of the commission operating semiautonomously outside of the mayor’s control.

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 its 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. In May, Hyperallergic independently confirmed with sources inside the organization — who spoke on the condition of anonymity — that tensions are still high.

“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 in May, responding to the ongoing 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.”

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