v. HEN THE D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities became an independent agency in October 1975, $200,000 out of its $287,400 budget was distributed to artists and arts organizations through grants.
Since then the commission's budget has increased to more than $600,000. But when grants for this fiscal year were awarded last August, only $195,250 was disbursed, and applicants were told that this was all the grant money that was available.
The commission never announced that a new round of grants was planned, but word spread on the local arts grapevine that more grant money was available. Last week the commission gave away another $107,503. More than half of the winners had also won grants in August.
The evaluation and approval of the grants are done by panelists and commissioners serving without pay. But the commission has allotted its staff $178,013 this year -- almoslt as much money as the amount initially set aside for grants.
This emphasis is intentional. Under executive director Larry Neal, the commission is trying to expand it function into something more than grant-giving.
"We are stuck as just an agency that gives out funds, and we want to be more," Neal told a congressional committee last April. "We want to initiate programs, develop programs, and get technical apparatus together so the funds are not being drained in the arts groups."
According to Nearl, the programs he envisions would help artists manage their resources more efficiently. They would include workshops on legal and fiscal issues, a computerized information and management system, a needs survey and six major white papers. The commission also would sponsor more arts programs of its own.
But interviews with more than 75 artists, commission officials and other observers revealed that the commission itself is widely criticized for inefficiency, sloppy bookkeeping and apparent conflicts of interest.
A separate report prepared for Mayor Marion Barry's transition team charged that the commission "lacked a coherent overview of the full charge of its responsibilities," that it issued few guidelines for the grants procedure and failed to properly evaluate grantees, kept spotty records of panel meetings, maintained erratic communications with the mayor's office and failed to tap enough funding sources.
The chairmen of the committee that prepared this report, Patrick Hayes and John Kinard, were themselves recently appointed to the commission by Barry, though their nominations have not yet been confirmed by the city council.
The appointments are likely to generate sparks. In an interview last week Hayes warned that the drift of the commission away from grant-giving toward programs of its own is "a violation of the law. The commission is supposed to be a funding unit, not a programming unit. The commissioners should be bankers rather than operators."
To most Washington artists and officials of arts organizations, the commission has a reputation for being underfunded and understaffed.
But on a per capita basis, the District ranks 16th among the states in financial support of its arts agency. The D.C. commission staff is larger than the staffs of the Maryland and Virginia commissions, though their budgets are higher. Neal's salary ranked fifth among the country's state arts commission directors last June; since then it has risen from $31,775 to $34,604.
In a letter to The Washington Post last October, representatives of the National Symphony, Arena Stage the Corcoran Gallery, the Folger Library, the Washington Opera and the commission itself put the commission's budget at $267,000.
Actually the commission is receiving about $560,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts, the city and the United Black Fund this year. The 1979 city budget also indicates that $73,800 is available to the commission in federal CETA funds -- for a total of nearly $634,000. Since Barry was inaugurated, he has requested an additional $243,000 for the commission for fiscal year 1979, which would bring the total budget to approximately $877,000.
For fiscal year 1980 the commission expects an increase in its appropriation from the National Endowment for the Arts and hopes for an increase in city spending.
Out of this year's budget, $195,250 was granted to artists last August and $107,503 was granted last Thursday. The actual receipt of the initial money by most of the grantees was delayed through most of the fall because of the illness of one commission staff member.
Much of the rest of the commission's money goes to the payroll. There currently are two vacancies on the commission staff, but the budget provides for a staff of 11, drawing salaries botaling $178,013.
At the January meeting of the commission, commissioner Warren Robbins complained that a staff the size of the commission's should process grants faster. Robbins pointed out that the private Meyer Foundation's staff of three distributes $1 million in annual grants.
"It's a paradox," commented E. Ethelbert Miller, a poet and a member of the commission's literature panel, in a speparate interview. "The arts groups desperately need more money, but the commission doesn't. It can't even handle what it has." Chaotic Meetings
Larry Neal may want to do more than pass out money to arts groups, but so far just passing out the money has not come easily.
The monthly meetings of the commission are graphic demonstrations of the confusion that characterizes commission business, according to many local artists.
Allice Denney, director of the Washington Project for the Arts, described a commission meeting she observed as "total chaos. They followed no procedure, no order. No one ever made a motion. The commissioners spent the whole time yelling at each other. Nothing was accomplished, but it was marvelous theater."
The first meeting that commissiopner W. Robert Lomax Jr. attended included the final vote on approving a round of grants, he recalled. He said he was no formed of thisd and was given the posals when he arrived: "I abstained from every vote because I had not had the opportunity to read the material."
There was hardly any material to read for the commissioners who approved a round of grants at last Thursday's meeting. They were given nothing more than a list of the organizations and amounts recommended for grants by the panels. When dance panel chairwoman Jean Page was asked by other commissioners to explain why some of the groups recommended by her panel deserv ed grants, she pleaded ignorance on three of the groups and referred the question to the commission staff.
At the January meeting -- held in a small, overheated room at commission headquarters on 14th Street NW -- the minutes of the December meeting were challenged by several commissioners, with Robbins calling them "inexcusable." Neal explained that the staff member who regularly prepares the minutes had been absent and assured the commissioners that the condition of the minutes was a fluke.
Also during the January meeting, commission vice chairman Tony Taylor assailed the irregularity of panel meetings being held to decide the second round of grants and twice referred to matters before the commission as "b ."
Though chairwoman Marie Williams gamely tried to maintain order at the January meeting, she generally failed. Neal did moslt of the talking, with commissioner Harry Poe making motions to accept Neal's recommendations and Taylor providing a belligerent counterpoint.
Talk continued from the December meeting as to whether the commissioners should submit their resignations, allowing incoming Mayor Barry to appoint a new commission. Recently four of the commissioners have done so, including Williams. There were already four vacancies on the 18-member commission, but some who have resigned are still serving in a lame-duck capacity until Barry's nominations of Hayes, Kinard, new chairwoman Peggy Cooper, Theodis Gay and Heidi Berry and at least two others are approved.
Prior to the main meeting Neal met with the commission executive committee and discussed the Hayes-Kinard report on the commission. "We should becogent in responding to their legitimate criticisms and eloquently vicious in response to their illegitimate criticisms," he said.
In early February Neal issued his response: a 39-page critique of the Hayes-Kinard study. He conceded that the commission lacks "a coherent overview," that the charge of sloppy record-keeping is "partially true" and that the transition team "is correct in locating a certain amount of fiscal confusion in the budget reports." But he defended his record of evaluating grantees, of dealing with the mayor and of tapping available funding sources.
"We are talking about an agency with a very, very small program and development staff," he wrote. He asked his critics to consider that "the state arts agency movement is just coming into its own" and "the establishment of the commission was an adventure." He offered this assissment of himself: "The Director's strengths lay clearly in the area of program concepts, not fiscal management."
"I'm not a magic numbers person," Neal had said in an earlier conversation. His heart, he continued, is in "the academic, artistic sphere" rather than government. Neal is a poet, playwright and essayist. He recently spent an 11-week term as Howard University's Andrew Mellon Humanist in Residence. "I took off leave from work, leave withoug pay at that, about six hours a week, and it was like bliss."
Neal also was on leave without pay last Thursday, when he missed the commission meeting at which the second round of grants was approved. His absence delayed the approval of the literature grants, as he is the staff liaison to the literature panel. He was attending a children's television conference in New York.
He plans to take more leave without pay in New York to work on his play, "The Glorious Monster in the Bell of the Horn," which is scheduled to be produced there this summer.
When Neal is away, no one person is in charge. He advocates the hiring of a deputy director with expertise in fiscal affairs.
Others suggest that Neal, the idea man, should be the deputy to a strong administrator rather than vice versa. Patrick Hayes said that if he had his way, he would appoint his transition team colleague Kinard to run the commission whild keeping Neal on as a consultant, "for his imagination and his ideas."
Currently Neal refers questions about the budget to Gilbert Colwell, the commission's community arts director. Colwell can answer some of the budget questions, but not all of them.
For example, four commission employes this year were paid by federal CFTA funds totaling $44,527. But according to the city budget for 1979, the commission has access to $73,800 for five CETA jobs. Local CETA officials say that the maximum amount of CETA funds that could be spent on five salaries is $55,000, and neither they nor Colwell can explain the $73,800 figure. "I recall coming up with the figure," said Colwell, "but I can't remember how I arrived at it."
According to David Legge, a city auditor who audited the commission in 1977 at Neal's request, the commission's "record keeping is sloppy." But Neal was pleased with the results of the audit: "Things were not so bad," he said.
Politics of Grants
Frture prospects, not past or present problems, occupy much of Larry Neal's attention. He disavows responsibility for specific grants issued by the commission. Grant decisions are made by panelists in each artistic discipline, who rev iew applications and recommend winners, and by the commissioners themselves, who approve or disapprove the panels' recommendations.
The commission's largest grant this year -- $10,000 -- went to an organization called Positive Productions, Inc., for the making of a movie about the Wilmington 10 controversy. Positive Productions was formed and largely financed by the National Wilmington 10 Defense Committee. "They're interwined," said Imani Kazana, coordinator of the committee and president of Positive Productions.
Asked about this grant, Neal replied that "in the case of an organization that has any kind of political orientation, as long as they comply with our guidelines and with the evaluation of the panelists, the political orientation doesn't matter." A right-to-life organization would be eligible to receive funds to make a film about abortion if its application were approved by the commission's media panel, said Neal.
"We would hope that they had a track record in film," he added.
According to Kazana, the Wilmington 10 film is the first movie ever made by Posiktive Productions. However, its director Haile Gerima has directed three other films.
Last fiscal year the commission sponsored a city-wide crafts exposition and the Neighborhood Dance Experiment. Both were well received, but both saddled the commission with longstanding debts.
From the crafts fair, held in November 1977, debts of several thousand dollars each were owed to two printers until this month. In an earlier interview, Neal said he had found the money to pay these debts but that even if he had not, "we're certain the city would have paid for it, because the city would have been liable for lawsuits."
From the Dance Experiment, held last summer, debts of $4,500 and $1,500 are still owed to Dance Project and Dance Exchange, respectively, according to officials of both organizations. The groups participated in the program at the commission's request.
Like most state arts commissions, the D.C. Commission sponsors an Artists-in-the Schools program. For this school year the commission replaced a Shake-speare-in-the Schools program that occasionally served 25 schools throughout the city with a more intensive program that has brought three artists to the students of six Ward 3 schools, plus two programs at other schools which have yet to begin. The Hayes-Kinard report found the new program "sadly lacking in focus, continuity and responsiveness to the school system," Neal, in his reply, labeled it "quite successful."
"A major flaw" of the Hayes-Kinard report, wrote Neal, was its failure to mention the commissionl's joint sponsorship with the Greater Washington Central Labor Council of Arts D.C., a CETA-funded arts job program. But the only continuing connection between the commission and Arts D.C. is the presence of three commissioners on Arts D.C.'s seven-member board.
Neal prefers to talk about the future, His projected computerized information system will take two years to design, but he believes it will come in handy. For example, he said, the Arkansas arts budget will be instantly accessible through the computer. The commission receives 10 calls a day requesting information the computer could provide, estimated Neal. All arts commissions "that can afford it" are installing such systems, he said.
Neal has high hopes for his planned needs-assessment survey. Using National Endownment for the Arts money, the commission hired Kenneth Kahn as a consultant on this project. As director of the Maryland Arts Council, Kahn is Neal's counterpart in Maryland. According to Kahn, the survey is essential, as long as it si done with the clear endorsement of the new mayor.
"Nobody knows what the hell is going on in Washington regarding needs for the arts," said Kahn, "but unless there's a loud and clear signal from the mayor's office as to the commission's future, there's not much likelihood other groups will cooperate with the survey."
Neal believes the commission needs a new image. He has set aside $600 for the design of a commission logo, and at Thursday meeting the commission approved this expenditure provided that the logo is selected through a contest.
The commission offices are on the 12th floor of a building on 14th Street NW between K and L Streets, and Neal does not approve. "We should be in a Washington townhouse that's a landmark," he said, "And we can be part of its preservation. We should be in some space that is appropriate to the image of an arts commission.
"It's time for the arts community and for all of us to grow up, to become professional, to get away from the kid stuff, and have an office that really for once and for all does the job in a bang-up way and with style," said Neal.
Neal sees himself as "a transitional figure" at the commission. He doesn't want to leave until his new programs are "properly administered, and the flow is smooth. I'm not sure when that's going to be. It's going to be under two years, but I'm not sure when."
However, "The minute I find I'm not servicing the arts community properly," he said, "I will resign."
And after Neal?
"Apres moi, le deluge bureaucratique ," said Neal. "The reason I say that is when there's more money around, there's more madness."