Bowser Bruised as DC Arts Soap Opera Ends — For Now

The mayor of DC -- and all the battling political stakeholders of the city's cultural scene -- now have a chance to act like adults. The artists deserve it.

For a story on Washington, DC's Cultural Plan, used this image, by Flickr user ep_jhu, of a colorful typographic mural in Anacostia.

While most Americans are focused on the latest impeachment news, an ongoing showdown of another kind has been underway in the nation’s capital. In some ways, this showdown mirrors the debates and ready-for-TV spectacles unfolding in national politics, from free speech concerns and tensions between political appointees and career officials to a lockout, accusations of thievery, and an oft-neglected community caught in the middle.

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The showdown began in 2018 when DC Mayor Muriel Bowser announced the completion of the DC Cultural Plan and a new Creative Affairs Office; it ended with pushback by the DC Council against what is, in their view, executive overreach. It was punctuated in the middle by a fabulous party in celebration of DC’s artists (and it was quite a party).

Last April, the DC government announced the rollout of the Cultural Plan, including some $8.4 million appropriated toward its implementation. The DC Office of Planning (OP) would take the lead — with input from the DC Commission on Arts and Humanities (DCCAH) and DC’s Office of Cable Television, Film, Music and Entertainment (OCTFME), with further input from nearly 1,500 artists. The plan seeks to stimulate, sustain and expand DC’s arts and culture sector; to quantify and catalyze the creative economy’s impact on the overall local economy; to codify the ways in which investment in the arts can address broader local issues, such as a lack of affordable housing; to lower barriers to entry for local artists; and to improve management of public spaces. The 224-page document provides infrastructure, programming and investment plans.

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Local artists have been consistently critical of the plan. They say it misunderstands their needs — especially the part that involves “scrapping millions of dollars of arts grants and replacing them with loans.” While I no longer work full-time for an arts organization, I’m pretty sure the balance sheets at most arts nonprofits haven’t changed so much as to make getting a loan preferable to winning a grant in order to operate and to create work. Artists and arts organizations are understandably wary of how this new funding setup will work. No longer, for example, would DCCAH be required to dole out a certain number of grants — and as for how funding streams and strategic planning will be affected, no one knows. Artists and arts groups are further dismayed by the Cultural Plan’s lack of clarity on other crucial objectives, such as how local government will keep artists in the city. Part of that challenge is how to offer affordable studio space — a perennial struggle in a city where real estate prices have surged and artists are already fleeing to the suburbs or to other cities altogether.

“Resurrection,” 1966, by DC-born artist Alma Thomas. Photo:

Here’s where the politics really take over and things get, unfortunately, even more interesting. Some view the intriguing-ideas-but-how-will-it-be-put-into-practice Cultural Plan as little more than a power grab by Mayor Bowser, who clearly wants to exert more control over DC’s arts and culture sector. Almost as if in response, the DC Council voted this summer to transition the DC Arts Commission into an independent body — no longer with a mayoral appointee as its leader, or a politically appointed coterie of commissioners. The changeover was set to take place officially on Oct. 1, the start of DC’s fiscal year. This, of course, didn’t go over well with Mayor Bowser, creating a ton of confusion.

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WAMU, DC’s local NPR affiliate, reported in September that DC Arts Commission board chair Kay Kendall directed staff, via email, to halt all official business until the new interim board chair took over on Oct. 1. WAMU reported that Kendall received a “threatening call” from John Falcicchio, a “longtime Bowser advisor…demanding [Kendall] rescind the directive. Here’s more from the Washington City Paper:

Falcicchio is the Interim Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development. The Arts Commission director reports to that office, but the commission’s acting director, Terri Rouse-Rosario, resigned in August, effective Sept. 30. A new director has yet to be named.

Falcicchio’s call prompted the end-of-day call between Mendelson and the mayor. Mendelson told WAMU that when he asked Bowser how they were going to resolve their tensions, she told him that she wanted to replace the entire Arts Commission Board with new appointees because she believes their jobs have changed now that the Commission is independent.

“It is stunning,” he said. “Clearly she does not want an independent arts commission.”

But that’s not the end of it. 202Creates — Bowser’s three-year-old initiative to “amplify and celebrate D.C.’s creative culture” — held a kickoff party in late August (the fantastic party I mentioned earlier!). At the party, Bowser announced the creation of yet another municipal entity, the Creative Affairs Office, that would serve as “the central coordination body for the reconstituted D.C. Arts Commission.” This new agency, she said, would lead all future 202Creates endeavors. It will also take over some, but not all, of the responsibilities of the newly independent DCCAH.

Are you confused yet? Because I am. So are most of the artists in DC.

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What was previously under the control of the DCCAH that would now be under the control of the Creative Affairs Office? Reinstating and exercising oversight of the Mayor’s Arts Awards — which were cancelled by DCCAH — for one thing. Another is control of DC’s vault of public art, a 3,000-piece collection that sometimes makes loans to government offices for public display, including works by renowned DC artists Alma Thomas, Sam Gilliam and Linn Meyers. Suddenly, this September, DCCAH staff members were locked out of the public art vault by pro-Bowser forces in an attempt to seize control of the collection. The locks were literally changed at the direction of Bowser’s executive team, a move declared illegal on Oct 21. On Nov. 21, the adversaries at last reached a ceasefire — a way forward that doesn’t require locks and bolt cutters.

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This entire dispute deserves more air time and discussion than it has received — even with the now-higher bar for drama established by our national politics. There’s plenty of blame to go around; none of the players in this mess are perfect. For example, DCCAH made local headlines late last year after a surprise announcement to defund grants for projects that it deemed “lewd, lascivious, vulgar, overtly political, or excessively violent, constitutes sexual harassment, or is, in any other way, illegal.” Censorship cries rightly arose, and there was a chorus of finger-pointing as to who’s idea this was, followed by Mayor Bowser rescinding the rule one week later.

DC’s artists and arts organizations are being hurt by all this mayhem.

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Navigating any burdensome, bureaucratic grant proposal process is a feat without nasty and petty battles between self-interested municipal factions. I’m all for upping engagement with, and investment in, DC’s creative community. Indeed, for too long it has been taken for granted or else cast aside, starved of funding and not given the attention it deserves. But I worry that as politicians realize that the creative economy is a powerful driver of the overall economy, they will use that knowledge to undermine established processes and to further politicize funding for the arts. How badly must supposedly pro-arts politicians act for hundreds of local artists to have signed a recent petition entitled “DC Mayor Bowser: Hands Off Our Culture”? The petition demands that Mayor Bowser stop politicizing DCCAH — to allow it to be a truly independent organization; to refrain from appointing or dismissing commissioners for 180 days; to avoid unduly influencing its next executive director; to return the public art collection to DCCAH’s control; and to relinquish oversight of the Cultural Plan to DDCAH’s career employees.

While I am a relative newcomer to the DC arts scene, I echo the concerns of the petition. We don’t need any more muddying of the waters or self-serving crosstalk. Instead I’d say that DC’s arts scene is in immediate need of more transparency around the numerous and overlapping government entities funding local arts and culture (how many are there now?). This would include their mandates, their budgets and where exactly all this money is going.

Anything less just won’t do.