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Over chairman’s objections, D.C. Council approves two arts commission nominees he has called divisive

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser, left, listens to D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson during a news conference in August. The mayor criticized Mendelson’s objection to the reappointments of two nominees to the city’s arts commission. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)
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The D.C. Council on Tuesday approved the reappointments of four members of the city’s Commission on the Arts and Humanities, including two candidates whom council Chairman Phil Mendelson had tried to dismiss because of what he described as their divisive temperaments.

Mendelson had moved the nominations of Kymber Lovett-Menkiti and Gretchen Wharton out of committee last week, but not those of Cora Masters Barry, the wife of the late Marion Barry, former mayor of D.C., and Howard University professor Natalie Hopkinson.

But at the end of Tuesday’s meeting, council member Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large) introduced an emergency measure that allowed votes on the reappointments of Barry and Hopkinson.

All four were approved for three-year terms.

White and several other council members praised Barry and Hopkinson for efforts to bring more equity to the grant process.

“The conversation about race and arts funding is a difficult one . . . [but] we should not be kicking Ms. Barry or Professor Hopkinson off the team, or scapegoating them,” White said. “These nominees are qualified. These nominees should have had a hearing.”

Arts and political leaders expressed outrage that Mendelson was not advancing the nominations of Barry and Hopkinson.

Mendelson, the only no vote, reiterated his opposition to the nominations, saying he had received negative feedback from arts leaders. He also questioned Barry’s integrity, saying she had approved a grant for her own organization. When the arts commission voted on grants in August, members could not see the organizations’ names, a spokesman said. Barry did not respond to a message seeking comment.

“I have received considerable comment from other members of the commission as well as various folks who are active in the arts community who find these two members who we are not moving are very controversial and polarizing,” Mendelson said.

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The controversy comes as the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, a partner of the National Endowment for the Arts, has dramatically reshaped its policies to focus on diversity and equity and to broaden its reach to serve the entire city. Its $38.4 million budget is one of the nation’s largest.

Barry and Hopkinson have been crucial to the commission’s goal of greater equity and inclusion, supporters said, and they criticized Mendelson’s characterization of the two women as divisive.

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) voiced her displeasure at a news conference on Monday.

“One person is going to block it, and the reason [is] she’s pushy? She’s pushy?” Bowser said when asked about Mendelson’s move to block Barry. “I’m just going to say this for a lot of women who have been in rooms with men who say they are difficult or pushy because they want change. I am going to stand with them, and I demand the council give them an up-or-down vote.”

Others sent letters to the D.C. Council in support of the nominees.

“This is cause for alarm and should be a red flag to the D.C. Council because this is a familiar dog whistle that white men repeatedly use to thwart the progress brought about by Black and Brown women,” wrote arts commissioner Quanice Floyd. “It is because of Dr. Hopkinson and Mrs. Barry’s judgment and temperament that the commission is leading the way and on track to become a national leader amongst statewide arts agencies.

“The irony is not lost on me that the two Black women whose voices helped make meaningful change for some of our most marginalized cultural arts organizations are now being described as ‘angry Black women’ and are being silenced.”

On Tuesday, Mendelson said the rhetoric over the nominations was inflammatory and inaccurate.

“Mayor Bowser blasted me yesterday for saying the nominees are ‘pushy,’ but I never said that. . . . Or that I don’t like Black women. Not true. Look at the record,” he said.

Last year, Barry persuaded Reggie Van Lee, her friend and an arts philanthropist and management consultant, to lead a task force on diversity, equity and inclusion. The panel worked for six months and submitted a report with 44 recommendations. Bowser then nominated Van Lee to be chairman of the commission. He was sworn in July 1.

Van Lee said he told Mendelson that the four commissioners were active members of a new and harmonious panel and that he needed all four to continue its progress.

“It would cause a slowdown in momentum at best, and perhaps a real issue with me executing my agenda, if I didn’t have these people who are there with me and understand what they are doing,” Van Lee said Sunday of the potential of loss of Barry and Hopkinson. “It certainly does not help me.”

In August, the arts commission used a new funding formula to award the first grants of fiscal year 2022, cutting funding to some of the city’s major arts institutions while increasing support to smaller organizations. At the time, Van Lee said the change was a step toward fixing long-standing inequities, but one theater leader wrote to colleagues that the cuts were larger than the formula that had been agreed upon and that Mendelson and other D.C. Council members would not be pleased.

Mendelson said last week that he did not understand why there was still discontent, considering that the agency’s budget has almost doubled in recent years.

“We shouldn’t be having arguments about big versus small [organizations], established versus emerging,” he said. Before Tuesday’s vote, he named a half-dozen large arts organizations that received smaller grants this year and questioned why they would get less when more money was available.

Hopkinson (who is also a former Washington Post reporter) said she views Mendelson’s decision to deny her reappointment as “direct retaliation” for the changes to the grants formula and the cuts to major institutions.

“It’s hard not to feel like it’s not an insult,” she said last week. “We’ve been working hard for a year and a half, showing up, doing all the work, and you don’t even get a hearing? It feels very pointed.”

Michael Brice-Saddler contributed to this report.

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