April 30, 2019

Save the .4%! (Or: The Autonomy of the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities Is Under Attack. Artist Grants Are Being Targeted. Here's What You Need to Know.)


"Mayor Muriel Bowser Wants Big Changes for the City's Arts Commission"

And that has many people in the arts community on edge.

Washington City Paper's comprehensive overview of how we've gotten here, with many thanks to Matt Cohen and Kriston Capps for their reporting.


"Mendelson Moves to Block Mayor’s Restructuring of the City’s Arts Commission"

The Council chairman's pointed budget recommendations come after a public outcry from the arts community.

Read the whole story here, via CityPaper.

...Apologies if I contributed to any confusion by citing a .4% figure versus .3%; that was a point of accidental misinformation at the Eaton Hotel meeting. Thanks to everyone who helped get the word out and advocated with their councilmembers!

Chairman Phil Mendelson
DC Council of the District of Columbia

Dear Chairman Mendelson,

I am writing to express grave concern over the status of arts funding in the District of Columbia in the proposed Fiscal Year 2020 budget put forward by Mayor Bowser’s office and now being considered by the Council. 

The specifics of the Commission on the Arts and Humanities budget table (BX0) are nested within“2020 Economic Development and Regulation.” This structure recognizes the symbiotic relationship between the arts and the general economy. Robust arts activity is a key contributor to our city’s finances. But that revenue will continue only if artists are given funding to create a vibrant, inclusive, multi-disciplinary scene that attracts audiences. Support for arts is crucial to the preeminence of Washington, D.C., in America’s cultural landscape.  

For the Fiscal Year 2019, as a result of focused advocacy and initiative, Washington, D.C., dedicated .4% of its sales tax revenue to funding for the arts. This allocation was an important and logical gesture recognizing that local arts—galleries and exhibitions, dance, theater, and music performances, literary festivals, and other events—are a principle draw for retail activity in terms of tickets, merchandise, and tandem items such as food and drink. The Mayor’s proposal eliminates that hard-earned allocation, proposing a set disbursement instead. 

In the short term, the amounts might be comparable, but in the long term this severs an organic alignment between commercial growth and arts funding. The consequence is painfully ironic for artists who are part of a neighborhood that picks up business as a “hotspot” for arts tourism, due to their labors, only to be priced out of residency. When funding amounts stay static while the costs of living continue to rise precipitously, practicing artists are forced out of the city. Restoring the dedicated sales tax funding is both a practical and proportionate decision.

Another point of concern is the “DC Cultural Plan,” which includes an “Innovation and Entrepreneurship Loan Fund.” Individual artists who might have previously received grants will, instead, be directed toward loans. There is no disclosure of what public or private institutions will offer these loans, or their terms. This proposal is grossly inappropriate in its understanding of an artist’s income model, and entrenches debt upon those likely already struggling with the debt of higher education and any attempt to own local housing or studio space. 

The manner in which these and other changes have been put forward, without dialogue with those responsible for DCCAH’s daily functions, indicates what seems to be a larger goal to undermine the Commission’s authority and subvert its existing (and legislatively mandated) independence. Other symptoms have been the reassignment of the poet laureate position from DCCAH overview to the Mayor’s Office of Talent and Appointments, and the attempt to attach a morality clause to grant paperwork without Commissioners’ knowledge or approval.

The justification for some of these designs has been the practices of other cities. But Washington, D.C., stands alone as a city, a de facto state, which doubles as the seat of national governance. Our resident artists and organizations are in a unique position of engaging local, metropolitan, and federal audiences simultaneously. The Commission was founded soon after the National Endowment for the Arts, another beloved institution under recent attack, and has had fifty years of effective action. The autonomy of DCCAH should be celebrated, not corroded. 

My confidence in the Commission on the Arts and Humanities is informed by firsthand experience with their capable staff. As a resident since 2002, I am a four-time recipient of individual artist grants and a two-time Larry Neal Writers’ Award winner. I have volunteered my time as a panelist. I have attended commission meetings where I spoke during the public comment portion, and I will attend more. Experienced arts administrators and voices of reason among the DCCAH Commissioners are calling for help and transparency. Please listen to them. 

Chairman Mendelson, I believe in your commitment to the city. I trust that you will take these concerns seriously. I am copying this letter to Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, who represents my Southwest neighborhood, as well as At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman, and I will circulate the text publicly. These issues are time-sensitive and urgent. Every artist and arts organization in Washington, DC., and all those who reap the benefits of our arts community, will be negatively impacted if the budget advances as proposed.  

Thank you for your consideration, and I look forward to hearing from you. 

Sandra Beasley

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