How Will D.C. Use $6 Million in New Arts Funding?


I recently facilitated an arts advocacy campaign that contributed to the largest year-to-year arts funding increase in the United States. Local funding for the Washington D.C. Commission on the Arts was $3.9 million in fiscal year 2012, and now, it will be over $11 million for fiscal year 2013. I’m proud of the role I played, but our community owes the increase to our allies in the D.C. City Council and in particular Councilmember Jack Evans.

Artists Christopher Cunetto and Brian Petro.

How will D.C. use $6 million dollars in new arts funding? The budget passed with the increase two months ago, and we’ll find out soon where the money will go. More than any individual policy priority, what I’d like to see is transparency. This increase of six million dollars may be a small number for the city budget, but it’s a huge number in the local arts economy. I’d like to know where the new money will be going, and to hear why the money is going where it will go (before it goes there.)

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The last few years have been awful for arts funding in D.C. As the municipal budget shrunk, arts funding was reduced significantly: almost 70% between fiscal year 2009 and fiscal year 2012. The cuts were absorbed through massive reductions in the DC Arts Commission’s granting programs, and I hope that at least some of this increase will go to restoring granting programs recently reduced (or eliminated) that served independent artists, and small arts organizations. When I was a young artist I received two Emerging Artists grants from the D.C. Commission that made a huge difference in my confidence, and I hope that program in particular (which was eliminated) is brought back.

The District of Columbia is a strange place to be an arts advocate these days. Separate scandals have recently forced the resignation of two members of the city council (which is only thirteen members to begin with) and several of the Mayor’s team have been fired or forced to resign. (My favorite scandal of course is the one related to city employees having sex in the office.) The Mayor himself is under investigation, and three of the (remaining) city council have called for his resignation. As a professional advocate and organizer I work with whoever is in office, but this was not how it was supposed to be.

Councilmember Jack Evans (second from left) receives award from Robert Bettmann, Shanti Norris and Jack Hannula. Photos by Albert Pootie Ting.

Just three years ago a friend contacted me and asked if I would help plan the arts community fundraiser for the candidacy of Mayor Gray. I pulled together a list of a hundred D.C. arts leaders and it was my pleasure to attend, and help organize, that event. I had worked with the Mayor when he was in the council, and I had no reason to expect that he, and the city, would soon be be-set by scandal. Now, in the midst of this unsettled time, the DC arts community has just won the largest per year arts funding increase in the nation.

Where the money goes this year will be the biggest factor impacting our advocacy messaging next year, and I will update you on the DC arts budget as the year goes on.