Tony Gittens to Leave Arts Commission, Stay With Filmfest DC

Gittens has been a part of the District's cultural scene since the 1960s.
Gittens has been a part of the District's cultural scene since the 1960s. (By Chad Wyatt)
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By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Tony Gittens, the executive director of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, announced yesterday he is leaving that post after 11 years.

Gittens said he will continue to be director of the Washington, DC International Film Festival (also known as Filmfest DC), a job he has held simultaneously with his work at the arts commission.

The commission, which has an $11.5 million budget this year, supports local artists through both direct grants and programs.

Gittens, 63, said he earns about $110,000 annually at the commission and is taking a retirement incentive package at the end of July. He said he intends to spend a few months resting, reading, traveling and getting "a broader understanding of the world around me." His successor will be named by Mayor Adrian Fenty.

But Gittens said he is not retiring. "When you have been doing something for almost 12 years, the job is on your mind all the time," he said. "I want to get a broader perspective of the city because, fundamentally, the city and the city's culture have changed since I joined the arts commission. I want to get a better sense of that and I want to get a clearer understanding of what my role should be."

Last year, a Washington Post report raised questions about an apparent conflict of interest between Gittens's post with the arts commission and as head of the film festival, which receives funding from the commission. Gittens denied any conflicts and said yesterday the public airing hadn't had "any personal effect or effect on the festival. This year was a very strong year, with 25,000 attendants."

Gittens has been a fixture on the Washington cultural scene since the 1960s, when he was a campus leader and student newspaper editor at Howard University. In the 1970s, Gittens was the first manager of the then-influential Drum and Spear bookstore in Columbia Heights. Later, he founded the Black Film Institute at the University of the District of Columbia, which brought foreign and U.S. films by black talent to public attention. Filmfest DC, which is now 22 years old, grew out of that enterprise.

In the past decade, the arts commission has raised its visibility through a number of programs. The agency initiated the Party Animals project, a public display of donkeys and elephants designed by artists, which it followed with a similar public art exhibition of painted pandas. The commission revived the honorary Mayor's Arts Awards and managed the art program for the Washington Convention Center and the John A. Wilson Building. "The commission felt the public doesn't have to go to museums to see art," said Gittens.

George Koch, a former commissioner and one of the founders of Artomatic, said, "Tony was really good with the staff, and he had the ability to craft a strategy and direction and then he got out of the way and let people grow. I had a career in government and there are very few people like that." The commission provides funding for Artomatic, a volunteer organization that hosts an annual multimedia art festival, and also has purchased work from Artomatic participants.

Jennifer Cover Payne, the president of the Cultural Alliance of Greater Washington, which also receives money from the arts commission, said Gittens was a risk-taker. "The commission now has the Upstart Program, which works with smaller organizations that don't have the opportunity or capacity to bring in technology and shore up their infrastructure. Tony understood this is a necessity for arts organizations to grow," said Payne.

One of the recipients of arts commission funding is Mary Brown, the executive director and co-founder of Life Pieces to Masterpieces, a Ward 7 organization that helps young African American men in public and low-income housing. "Tony Gittens was not an untouchable. If I called and wanted to talk to Tony Gittens, I could talk to Tony Gittens. That is huge and he was always accessible," said Brown. She said the arts commission made sure they were represented when local arts were being showcased. "We would even get site visits. The ambassador of Brazil and his wife came out because Tony and his team saw the value of our work," Brown added.

Artomatic's Koch said Gittens also deserves credit for getting city planners to include arts issues, including housing for artists, in the city's comprehensive development plan.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company