The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Meet the management guru who is trying to fix the D.C. arts commission

Reggie Van Lee, the newly appointed chairman of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. (Shuran Huang for The Washington Post)
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On a late September afternoon, Reggie Van Lee — management guru, arts philanthropist and new chairman of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities — sat on a folding chair in the back of a school auditorium in Congress Heights, listening to complaints about the commission’s grant process.

The application is cumbersome and the matching funds and reporting requirements impossible for small or understaffed organizations, said a few of the two dozen artists and leaders of grass-roots organizations who had gathered to talk about bringing equity to Washington’s arts funding. Some had concluded that the time needed to complete the application was not worth the money it might provide.

Van Lee has heard these complaints before. His usual response is to empathize with the speakers, but also to challenge them to help find a solution.

“We have to become more customer friendly. We have to become problem solvers, not policy police,” Van Lee, 63, told those gathered in Congress Heights, acknowledging the commission’s reputation.

But he also described his vision for the agency: He wants it to be more than an ATM. He wants it to be a collaborator with Washington’s artists and arts organizations.

“We want to not just give grantees fish but teach them how to fish. How do you build capacity? How do we connect [you] with mentors?

“If there is something you need to say, I want to hear it. You might not get what you want, but you will be heard,” he said. “I’m so glad to be here. I hope this is just the beginning. Let’s do this thing together.”

It was vintage Van Lee, say those who know and work with him. Although he was the guest of honor at the funding discussion, he avoided its spotlight. He sat among those gathered, where he listened intently, contributed occasionally and accepted criticism without a trace of defensiveness. Always cool and gracious, he gives his full attention to each task, whether it’s mingling with go-go musicians at a street festival or schmoozing at a Kennedy Center reception, friends and colleagues say.

“He is a little bit like Switzerland. He has this ability to navigate in all worlds. He’s on the boards of arts organizations, spent time on programming and within the African American community. He’s a very significant philanthropist; he is not motivated by politics,” commissioner Maggie FitzPatrick said. “And he doesn’t put up with bull.”

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Van Lee’s professional experience is as a management consultant, but he is deeply connected to the arts. He serves on the boards of the Kennedy Center, Studio Museum in Harlem, the Julliard School and, until recently, Washington Performing Arts. He has hosted parties for small organizations he cares about, inviting friends who can write big checks to share his enthusiasm.

He seems to know everyone in Washington, especially those in media, business and the arts. Diana Ross sang at his wedding 10 years ago to restaurateur Corey McCathern, attended by 700 at the National Building Museum. (Van Lee is tight with Ross’s daughter Rhonda, who asked her mother to step in after the planned performer dropped out.)

Van Lee is going to need every tool, every talent, every connection to accomplish his plan to remake the city’s arts commission. Designated by the National Endowment for the Arts as its state partner for the District of Columbia, the commission is an independent agency composed of 18 volunteers who are ­appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the D.C. Council for three-year terms. It is one of the country’s leaders in funding — its $38 million is one of the nation’s largest per capita — but it has been mired in controversy. Since 2018, it has weathered a censorship scandal, turf battles with the mayor and a series of short-tenured executive directors.

Last year, efforts to bring more equity and diversity to its grant-making — especially the push to eliminate the preferential treatment given to about two dozen major institutions — boiled over into name calling and shouting as commissioners clashed over issues of race, power and privilege. The rancor has abated, and some say the commission’s progress has accelerated. Others object that the gains by smaller groups have come at the expense of the city’s flagship institutions.

Arts leaders point to Van Lee as the right person to fix this divide.

“He’s a highly connective person, a connector not a divider,” Jenny Bilfield, president and chief executive of Washington Performing Arts, said about Van Lee, who was sworn in as chairman in July. “He is self-effacing in a way that diffuses how incredibly brilliant he is. He has a tremendous mind. He is laser-focused in terms of setting goals, diligent about seeking input. It’s a moment of great opportunity for our city.”

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Van Lee accepted the volunteer assignment in part because he says he wants all Washington residents to experience the same transformative power of the arts that he has. Born in Houston, the youngest of five, he is the only son of a postal worker father and a mother who was a nurse. Van Lee studied dance from an early age, sang in (and directed) the youth choir at Blueridge United Methodist Church, and was involved in theater and debate in middle and high school. (Recalling his role as King Winter in a middle school operetta, “The Season of Happiness,” he launched into a few bars on a recent Zoom call, singing, “I’m jolly King Winter ho ho, I come with the ice and the snow, when icicles freeze on bushes and trees . . .” and showing off a warm baritone through the entire first verse. Then he added, “I can’t believe I remember that.”)

He is as steeped in STEM academics as he is in song and dance. In high school, he won the grand prize in the Houston Science Fair for a project involving mathematical applications for solving the Pharaoh’s Dilemma, an ancient puzzle. After graduation, he headed east to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he studied engineering and directed the school’s gospel choir. After completing a master’s degree at MIT, he had a choice: return to Houston for a job at Exxon or dance with Alvin Ailey in New York.

“I studied, I danced and got it out my system,” Van Lee said about the 10 months he spent with Ailey. “What I decided, and some people say this is rationalizing, but I decided that that time dancing was to give me the perspective to be a good patron of dance and patron of the arts.”

Van Lee admited to missing dancing, especially in the first years after leaving dance for business. But he said the lessons learned in the studio — poise, discipline and determination — helped him in his career.

After a few years at Exxon, Van Lee went to Harvard to pursue an MBA and worked one summer for the management consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton. At the end of the summer internship, the company offered him a job that included paying his second-year tuition if he stayed for two years.

Two turned into 32. Van Lee rose through the ranks, worked with captains of industry in a variety of fields and promoted equity and diversity years before they were familiar ideas.

“He was at the forefront of saying not only is this important to our people, it is important to our business,” said Lloyd Howell, a friend and former colleague who is now Booz Allen Hamilton’s treasurer and chief financial officer. “He has a natural, human touch. Reggie makes you feel comfortable. He’s inclusive. He checks in on you just because.”

In 2016, at only 58, he retired from Booz Allen Hamilton in part to make room for younger executives but also to try something new. Stepping down allowed him time to think, consult and mentor, he said, but it didn’t last long. Since August 2019, he’s been a partner and chief transformation officer at the Carlyle Group investment firm.

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His first retirement provided the time to take a stab at a memoir (still unpublished; it needs a lot of editing, he said), in which he articulated his secrets to success, or what he calls the four Cs.

“The first is courage, because the world will constantly tell you what you cannot do, and you have to have the courage to go for it,” he said, “The second is confidence: If you have enough confidence, you don’t need a lot of courage. Third is competence. Nothing is better than knowing what you’re doing. The fourth C, which many people miss, is community.”

Proving that he follows his own advice, Van Lee built a compound for his sisters and other family members in Wharton, Tex., on land that his formerly enslaved great-grandmother and her husband had purchased in 1899. Friends tease that he built it for his 450-piece art collection, which includes works by Sam Gilliam, Romare Bearden and Lisa Beane.

Divine intervention played a role in his appointment to the arts commission, he said. When his friend Cora Masters Barry, former wife of the late D.C. mayor, became a commissioner in 2020, she shared with him her efforts to change the commission, especially in the areas of equity and diversity. He listened, offered encouragement and advice, and told her to continue when she considered quitting. After the police killing of George Floyd, Barry successfully advocated for a task force on equity, inclusion and belonging, and she asked Van Lee to lead it. He couldn’t say no.

“This is the work I’ve done for 20 years,” he said. “This is how my life has gone. I’m a person of faith, and I think that everything happens for a reason, and some things are about divine order.”

Two developments came out of the task force’s six-month effort: a list of 44 recommendations and Van Lee’s appointment as chairman to ensure they become reality. Some of the proposals, such as mandating equity training for commissioners and staff members, collecting data from grantees about the diversity of their staffs, board members and constituents, and enlisting — and paying — a more diverse group of individuals to grade grant applications, are underway.

Progress has been swift and dramatic, his colleagues say. Van Lee shifted the governance of the commission to be more democratic by allowing members to pick their committee assignments and having the groups elect their own chairs. Those decisions previously were made by the chairman.

“He makes people feel like they matter. He has an empathetic approach to relationships,” Barry said. “Are we all on the same page? No. But we trust the process.”

Van Lee held one-on-one meetings with the commissioners and the agency’s staff and hosted several social events, including one at his D.C. apartment, to nurture relationships and build camaraderie. He has appeared at community events and a virtual town hall to connect with residents and artists and was a presenter at the Mayor’s Arts Awards in September, part of his effort to repair the commission’s relationship with Mayor Muriel E. Bowser. (In 2019, she announced a new Office of Creative Affairs and attempted to take control of the commission’s art collection, two moves that led to the commission becoming an independent agency.)

“He has been very open and transparent about the vision and seeing that the 44 recommendations get executed correctly,” commissioner Quanice Floyd said. “He is a hopeful person. He is centering people and the arts community. I don’t think the commission has ever really done that.”

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In August, Van Lee led the commission to approve a new funding formula that included increases to many small and midsize groups but, most significantly, dissolved the National Capital Arts Cohort, a group of mostly major institutions that had benefited from a 2019 law that allowed them to share 28 percent of the commission’s grants in noncompetitive awards. The funding to this group dropped from $8.6 million to $3.3 million. Though several of the group’s leaders complained that the commission reneged on an agreement reached last spring that would have resulted in a $3 million cut, Van Lee did not feel compelled to honor an agreement made before his tenure.

Christopher Morgan, executive artistic director of Dance Place, one of the smaller-budgeted members of the cohort, told the commission the 60 percent cut in funding would lead to cuts to programs and staff.

“I am here to share concerns about midsize organizations and how they fit into the new funding ecology,” Morgan said at the commission’s Sept. 22 meeting. “I’m really concerned about the future and how these changes happened so quickly and perhaps without the communications to grantees that would have helped us better prepare to weather these storms.”

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson questioned the need for cuts at all when the commission has millions more dollars to award than it did only five years ago.

“I was surprised at the ferocity of some of the reaction and the inability or unwillingness to accept that this was a big disconnect that needed to be fixed in a big way,” Van Lee said about the backlash.

A second skirmish erupted earlier this month when Mendelson tried unsuccessfully to block the reappointments of two commissioners, Natalie Hopkinson and Barry, both vocal advocates for the commission’s equity work. Van Lee wrote to council members in support of their nominations, which were later approved.

The commission’s push for change continues. A mentor/protege program is in the works to help organizations large and small learn from each other, he said, as is a plan to improve the commission’s public profile.

“You have to make enough progress in the first year to continue to get people’s attention and keep the momentum going,” Van Lee said.

Underpinning everything is a planned “grants revamp,” a complete review of the goals and procedures that focus on equity, diversity and inclusion. Van Lee envisions the commission becoming a national leader by reaching every corner of the city’s arts landscape and supporting all organizations equally. Similar efforts are underway in Maryland and Pennsylvania.

“I am focused on the goal, to ensure that all of the residents of D.C., these taxpayers whose money goes to the commission, somehow experience the transformative power of the arts,” he said. “I’m always the optimist, and I’ve lived long enough and seen enough to know you can’t focus on the challenges. You have to focus on the opportunity.”

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