The national push for social and racial justice has taken hold of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, further dividing an already contentious panel and resulting in a change in leadership.
If approved by the D.C. Council, Van Lee will lead an 18-member board that critics describe as dysfunctional, toxic and beset by cronyism and white supremacy, according to internal documents and reports and interviews with 14 people associated with the commission. A partner agency of the National Endowment of the Arts, the commission awarded 1,044 grants worth $29.9 million last year; this year’s grant budget is $33 million.
Central to the discord is whether the commission, whose members are not paid, is equitably serving its community. There are complaints of preferential treatment of major arts groups — including Arena Stage, Studio Theatre and the National Building Museum — at the expense of smaller groups and organizations of color.
Arguments have played out in public commission meetings, and several Black members have later criticized what they see as dismissive and disrespectful attitudes by their White colleagues. The turmoil also extends to the agency’s staff. Current and former employees have told The Washington Post that the office environment is hostile, oppressive and racist. The agency has had four executive directors since 2018; the current director is Heran Sereke-Brhan.
The tumult is so overt that it was identified as one of the key findings in the draft of the commission’s strategic plan released publicly for comment last month: “The current level of discord among Commissioners is a distraction from the Agency’s work,” the draft says. “Overcoming these challenges — including the frequent and destabilizing turnover in the Executive Director position — is an essential prerequisite to the Commission’s success with every element of this plan.”
Phil Mendelson (D), chairman of the D.C. Council, expressed concern about the arts commission’s problems, saying he recently heard a commissioner describe the board as “a mess.”
“I am not interested in just perpetuating the mess,” he said when asked whether he would approve the mayor’s appointment, which he said the council received Monday. In addition to Van Lee’s nomination, Bowser has called for the reappointment of Cora Masters Barry, Natalie Hopkinson, Kymber Menkiti and Gretchen Wharton.
“The arts are an important part of the character of our city. I think it is important that government support the arts, and the commission is the vehicle through which we do that,” Mendelson said. “We have increased their funding substantially. There is a lot of good that can come out of that. What I don’t want to see is a food fight over the money. That’s only counterproductive to supporting the arts community.”
“We have oversight. I’m looking at what the possibilities are,” he added. “There’s too much money at stake.”
The makeup of the commission is a critical part of its dysfunction, according to former commissioner Josef Palermo. Five members have served since 2013 or earlier, he said, and more represent D.C.’s wealthy elite than its community of artists. The result, he said, is “an entrenched culture of cronyism.”
“You can’t be advocating for equity if you don’t have equity within the commission,” Palermo said. “I don’t mean just racial equity but socioeconomic equity.”
Several members have no firsthand experience with the hardship brought on by the pandemic, said an individual close to the commission who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal dynamics. “People are really suffering, losing homes, struggling between rent and food. There’s a lack of urgency to meet very serious needs.”
Kendall, the outgoing chairwoman, pointed to progress made in the past year, when the inclusion task force presented its recommendations. The commission approved them and created a standing IDEA committee. She said the time is right for new leadership.
“Forming our task force gave all of us a chance to refocus and ensure as much as possible that everything we do is based on equitable policies,” she said. “We came up with 44 recommendations. We are all proud of that work. I’m excited for the commission’s future.”
One of the most controversial equity issues is the way the commission funds the National Capital Arts Cohort (NCAC). As legislated by the D.C. Council, the commission must set aside 28 percent of its grant budget (which this year was $7.3 million) for this group of 21 grantees, including the Washington Ballet, Arena Stage and the Phillips Collection. Those recipients submit an application but are not judged in the same competitive manner as other applicants.
Among the 44 IDEA recommendations accepted by the commission is one that calls for a “challenge” to the law. There have been heated discussions among commissioners about it being unfair.
“I would agree. The inequity is baked into it,” Sereke-Brhan said. The program was imposed on them, she said, and they are working to change it.
“They had their reasons,” she said of the large organizations that fought for the set-aside. “They weren’t funded, had never been funded, on the level they needed. They succeeded in lobbying the council. I think we’re close to finding a solution that everyone can be relatively content with. It is a big step in the right direction. It signifies trust, that we are listening.”
In fiscal 2020, the average grant (not including one-time coronavirus relief grants) was $40,907. The average NCAC grant was almost $349,000, according to commission data. But 90 percent of grant dollars went to organizations based west of the Anacostia River, according to an internal report obtained by The Post. The city’s most underserved wards are east of the river.
“There has always been a question and a conversation around equitable funding,” said Denise Saunders Thompson, president and chief executive of the International Association of Blacks in Dance, now based in Maryland. “Most of us have moved outside of the city because we haven’t been able to get the support we need.”
The commission is working on other measures to help smaller organizations, including eliminating the matching requirements for organizations with budgets under $500,000 and funding multiyear grants. Other ideas include paying the panelists who score applications. (The scores help commissioners determine funding.)
Critics say the commission and staffers endlessly discuss these options but fail to act on them. When the same discussions are repeated, emotions flare.
“They don’t see any value in those who are willing to be advocates for change,” Palermo said. “They see it as being combative.”
Last month, Commissioner Quanice Floyd emailed several commissioners to complain about their behavior during the March meeting. When members of color spoke, some White commissioners would shake their heads and wave their arms in a dismissive manner, wrote Floyd, who chairs the commission’s IDEA committee. Such behavior is evidence of a “racist system,” she wrote.
“I no longer have the patience to teach White people how to behave,” Floyd said in her email, a copy of which was obtained by The Post.
This dismissive attitude plagues the agency’s paid staff, according to current and former employees. Improving the diversity of panels has been talked about for years, according to internal documents and interviews, but at least one recent panel had all White members. When a staff member offered to help recruit Black panelists, commission deputy director David Markey responded by saying, “Make sure they’re smart,” according to two people familiar with the exchange who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal debates.
Commissioners and employees have received complaints about Markey from grantees who find him difficult and rigid, and those complaints have been brought to the commission’s leaders, according to internal documents.
Markey’s interactions with grantees is professional, Sereke-Brhan said. “There are just as many successes,” she has said. “He has guided smaller organizations to great success, small organizations led by people of color.”
Markey did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.
Since 2018, when Executive Director Arthur Espinoza Jr. left after employees complained of a hostile office environment, there have been three more executive directors, and the environment has not improved, according to employees. Supervisors curse them out and belittle and bully them, they say. During an all-staff seminar intended to build a collaborative workplace, Markey said that if employees do not feel valued, they should leave, two employees said.
“It takes time to change values,” Sereke-Brhan said. “My personal values are not oppressive or secretive. Those of us in leadership positions, we understand the volume of work. . . . We try to honor people’s personalities and how they are connected to people we serve.”