THE D.C. COMMISSION on the Arts and Humanities awarded 27 grants of more than $3,000 last August. Officials of the commission were affiliated with 11 of the 2 winners.
Grants are awarded after seven panels, covering seven artistic disciplines, evaluate applicants and recommend winners. The panels are appointed and chaired by members of the commission. The entire commission makes the final decisions after hearing panel recommendations.
Commission officials were associated with the winners of these major commission grants:
Git Down Productions, a media organization which does work for government agencies, received $7,500 to produce a film about a woman potter. (Co-partner of Git Down, Jim Brown, is a media panelist. He is also a staff associate with Media Associates, which was awarded a $4,326.50 grant for a film festival in the commission's second round of grants Thursday.)
The Folger Theatre Group received $4,750 for producing a play by Brian Clark, "Whose Life Is It Anyway?" and was awarded an additional $1,350 by the commission last Thursday. (Producer Louis Scheeder is a commissioner and cochairman of the theater panel.)
Living Stage received $4,750 for conducting improvisational workshops and was granted an extra $1,350 from the commission last Thursday. (Director Robert Alexander is a theater panelist.)
Black Box, a literary organization, received $4,500 for taping cassettes of poets reading their own works. (Literature panelists Myra Sklarew, Andrea wyatt and E. Ethelbert Miller have recorded with Black Box.)
Dance Exchange received $4,125 to develop a new performing space and was granted an additional $2,379 last Thursday. (Director Liz Lerman is a dance panelist.)
Kuumba Learning Center received $4,000 to conduct afternoon workshops in an exchange program with Southeast high school students and was awarded another $2,500 last Thursday. (Director John Harrod is a commissioner.)
The Company, Inc., received $3,783 for exploratory workshops based on a true incident in which a young woman knifes herself into a coma as a crowd watches and eggs her on. Last Thursday The Company was granted another $1,200 by the commission. (Director Easter Yahya is a theatre panelist.)
The Duke Ellington School for the Performing Arts received $3,755 to develop an art gallery to inttoduce students to the business aspect of art. (Ellington board member Janet Rubin was acting as a commissioner, though her term had expired.)
The Washington Ballet received $3.625 for staging three new ballets and was awarded another $2,379 from the commission Thursday. (The group's resident choreographer, Choo San Goh, is a dance panelist.)
African Heritage Drummers and Dancers received $3,500 for instruction and training workshops and was granted another $2,379 Thursday. (Director Melvin Deal is a dance panelist.)
Alfredo Hijar received $3,500 for a year-long ceramics workshop at Wilson High School in August and was awarded another $2,042 from the commission Thursday. (Hijar is a crafts panelist.)
Larry Neal, executive director of the commission, attempted to stop the practice of commissioners and panel members receiving grants.
He circulated a memo on March 17, 1977, urging persons representing organizations that are in the process of applying for grants to resign from their paneis.
"The I Ching has warned me," reads the memo, "against establishing harsh administrative measures, but we must sometimes seek the extreme in order to arrive at an operational norm!... I know that this is the hard line; and that it will not be easy. But we whould attempt to make this major leap that will enhance our image in the community we are pledged to serve."
Neal was overruled by the commissioners, who voted to handle the matter another way -- by adopting the guidelines used by the Naional Endowment for the Arts (NEA) when dealing with the conflict-of-interest issue.
The NEA encourages panel members to leave the room during deliberations on the applications with which they are affiliated. Grants are permitted to organizations with which NEA panelists are affiliated, but the NEA guidelines prohibit panelists from receiving grants as individuals. The D.C. Commission adopted the same guidelines.
Commission records, however, show that one of its panelists has received individual grants.
Alfredo Hijar, the crafts panelist who received $5,542 from the commission in two grants this year, applied for the money as an individual. "I deserve the grant," Hijar commented. "I've had over 15 years of experience. Besides, there was no conflict of interest because other members of the panel reviewed my proposal."
When crafts panel chairwoman Matilda Brown was justifying her panel's recommendations at last Thursday's meeting, she explained that one potential applicant was ineligible because she served on the crafts panel. Other commissioners then asked her about Hijar. She replied that Hijar's proposal was submitted last spring prior to his appointment to the panel and was therefore acceptable. The commission awarded two crafts grants last summer, out of six applications, and the same two applicants were awarded the only crafts grants approved on Thursday.
Neal and the commissioners might have been spared their confrontation over conflict of interest if guidelines on the subject had been issued in the charter which created the commission as an independent agency in 1975. None was.
Many local artists see the conflict-of-interest problem as unavoidable. They point to the difficulty of findin knowledgeable panelists who are not involved in the arts themselves.
In a sometimes heated discussion of conflict of interest at last Thursday's commission meeting, theater panel chairman Harry Poe was briefly put on the defensive about the grant of $2,000 his theater group, Ebony Impromptu, had just received.
"There's no way to avoid this situation as long as there are activist artists," he contended.
Music panel chairman Tony Taylor had just explained that his organization, Lettumplay, had not applied to the commission for a music grant because of the conflict of interest. "If individuals sitting here wish to suffer," responded Poe, "that's their business."
(Last year, however, Lettumply received a Naional Endowment for the Arts expansion arts grant at the same tiem NEA expansion arts program specialist Katherine Prior was serving as Lettumplay's board president.)
"It may be perfectly legal," says Dance Project director Jan Van Dyke. "But I don't see how you can get away from the conflict of interest when we're all competing for the same money and some of us are judging and some of us are not."
Other panelists disagree. "Paranoia" is how Robert Alexander, a theater panelist, dismissed a question about potential conflict of interest. "We do a lot o soulsearching over each proposal. On the theater panel we take our jobs very seriously."
Dance panelist Melvin Deal was less impressed with his panel: "I was shocked. They were very one-sided and misinformed. They go on hearsay and gossip. People were getting iced out."
"I don't know what he meant," responded dance panel chairwoman Jean Page. "I have not known anything about Washington dance; in that sense, I'm totally neutral. Melvin tends to dominate the panel; when he came in, everyodne did what he said. None of us knew each other, so I don't know who is gossiping."
Some arts figures see the inconsistency surrounding the conflict-of-interest issue as symptomatic of most commission operations.
"It's incredible how poorly organized the commission is," said Leni Spencer, arts administrator with the Folger Shakespeare Library. "There's a tremendous discrepancy between the spoken word and the written word and that confustion cost us our $4,000 grant."
She was referring to an incidnet in fiscal year 1978, when the commission approved the Folger's request for $4,000 in order to pay poets in its Midday Muse Series. Five months later the commission informed the Folger that the grant had to be matched with cash, not contributed services, as the Folger had understood. Two months later, on a Friday afternoon, the commission demanded compliance with the guidelines for the cash match within five days. On the advice of a lawyer, Spencer interpreted this to mean five working days. She delivered the required papers to the commission on the following Thursday morning.
She was too late. The commission had meant five calendar days, and the Folger lost its grant.
"Dealing with them is tremendously frustrating experience," said Spencer "It's a mass of confusion, a basket of snakes."