This story has been updated.
The ongoing tug of war between the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities and Mayor Muriel E. Bowser took another turn late last month, when the locks were changed to the storage area that houses the commission’s prized art collection, preventing its staff from accessing it.
The Bowser administration took control of the collection without warning on Aug. 30, the day after the mayor announced a new Office of Creative Affairs, set to become “the central coordination body for the reconstituted [arts commission],” according to the official announcement.
Limited access to the art was restored last week, but the move was seen as an escalation of the power struggle between Bowser and the commission, Washington’s partner agency with the National Endowment for the Arts. D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) sent a strongly worded letter to Bowser on Tuesday questioning the legality of the move.
“It is not based in law and, in fact has no legal authority behind it,” Mendelson wrote. “Your office must restore unfettered access to the Arts Commission and cease laying any claim to its art.”
The commission supports hundreds of D.C.-area visual and performing artists and arts organizations with programs and competitive grants. It distributed $23 million in grants in 2017, and its budget is expected to hit $25 million in 2020.
“The administration appears to be intent on eroding the foundations of an organization that is so incredibly important to artists and small organizations like us,” said Peter Nesbett, executive director of the Washington Project for the Arts. “Artists have lost a fair amount of faith in the mayor and her support for the fine arts.”
The latest episode is tied to the fight for control of the commission, which will shift from the mayor’s office to an independent agency Oct. 1, the start of the new fiscal year. The D.C. Council added language to the 2020 budget bill making the commission an independent agency, like the city’s library system, to protect it from political interference. Last year, the mayor proposed creating a broader office for the arts, which would include culinary and other creative endeavors, and making the commission an advisory council. She hired an executive director who supported these changes.
“[Bowser] will have to work with, rather than direct, the commission,” Mendelson said. “In the scheme of things, that shouldn’t be a big deal.”
Mendelson pledged to help the commission make a smooth transition to a status that is not uncommon in city government.
“Tuesday, the first of October, will be the same as Monday, the 30th of September. Same commission, same responsibilities,” he said.
The pending independence prompted Bowser to secure the 3,000-piece collection, which includes works by such acclaimed D.C. artists as Alma Thomas, Sam Gilliam and Linn Meyers. The works are lent to government agencies for display in their offices.
“The art collection is the property of and insured by District of Columbia Government. We have a fiduciary responsibility to maintain these valuable assets and their rich cultural history,” Chanda Washington, director of communications for the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning & Economic Development, said in a statement.
The commission’s new status also caused acting executive director Terrie Rouse-Rosario to announce her resignation after only 10 months on the job.
“In light of . . . the ending of the agency I was hired to lead, it seems only appropriate to resign,” Rouse-Rosario said in a statement. “In my final weeks on the job, myself and the staff have been working to ensure as smooth a transition as possible for the agency and its constituents.”
Commission Chairwoman Kay Kendall said the search for a new director — the commission’s fourth leader in four years — is underway.
“We are moving as fast as we can to hire a new executive director who can work well with the entire arts community,” Kendall said.
The developments have created widespread confusion about the role of the new Creative Affairs Office and how it will affect the commission’s operations.
“I’m well aware that the mayor’s announcement has created a lot of heartburn. I think it’s the mayor trying to hang on in a way she doesn’t need to,” Mendelson said.
D.C. Council member David Grosso described the commission’s new structure as “quasi-
independent” since the commissioners will continue to be nominated by the mayor and approved by the council, and its new executive director will be a D.C. government employee.
“I feel it’s a better approach overall,” he said. “The independence part is not going to have to go through chain of command in the mayor’s office to give out the grants they think are the best.”
MeanwhileIn the meantime, artists and arts leaders are waiting,, and worrying.
“Disruptions like this make everybody nervous,” said Meyers, an internationally known artist who is based in Washington and is co-founder of Stable, a new group that supports the D.C. arts community. “We have an incredibly generous commission on the arts and humanities. It’s a draw for artists. It’s a value added. We’re all concerned that it not go away.”