The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Inching toward equity in arts funding, thanks to a racial reckoning

Cora Masters Barry in 2018.
Cora Masters Barry in 2018. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)
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At the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, equity in arts funding has been the subject of sometimes bitter debate for more than a year. But the 18-member commission hasn’t given up. The racial reckoning over support for, say, D.C. Black art vs. European classics continues, with strides toward reconciliation.

On Tuesday, the D.C. Council, acting on a request from the arts commission, voted to end a set-aside program that guaranteed millions of dollars annually for a group of the District’s wealthier, better established performing-arts groups.

That money, which averaged a bit more than $7 million a year, now goes into a general fund of more than $33 million — and anyone can compete for a piece of it. The more money there is at a community level, the more likely some of the city’s grass-roots talent will be discovered.

To their credit, the big-time beneficiaries of the old set-aside did not fight the change. Rather, they explained the economic rationale for bypassing the arts commission and lobbying the D.C. Council to give them special dispensation. They acknowledged that the funding program may have unintentionally added to arts funding disparities — with residents living east of the Anacostia River getting far less than Whites in more-affluent areas.

Then, the establishment arts organizations stepped up and reaffirmed their long-standing belief in the power of art to bring diverse communities together.

“We’re all keenly aware that diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion are fundamental to our society and must be powerfully reflected in arts and culture,” Dorothy Kosinski, the Vradenberg director and CEO of the Phillips Collection, said at an arts commission meeting earlier this year.

She also noted that such values were especially needed as society struggles to meet the challenges of a global pandemic, climate change and profound racial injustice. The Phillips, which is celebrating its 100th year, was one in a group of 20 D.C.-based arts organizations that are the self-described “cultural mainstay” of the city. Others include Ford’s Theatre, Folger Theatre, Arena Stage, Studio Theatre, GALA Hispanic Theatre, Step Afrika, D.C. Jazz Festival, Washington Performing Arts, the Washington Ballet, the Building Museum and the Choral Society of Washington.

“Our organizations are committed to building an equitable arts ecosystem across the District,” Kosinski said.

The arts commission got a new chairman recently — Reginald Van Lee, a Black philanthropist and patron of the arts and a highly respected management consultant and D.C. resident. Before taking that job, Van Lee headed the commission’s equity and inclusion task force. The group had come up with 44 recommendations for shoring up the District’s cultural foundations, honoring more art forms and reaching out to find and develop new talent.

Mayor names new arts chair amid charges of racism and cronyism

The arts commission, once deemed so dysfunctional that city officials would talk openly about abolishing it, has been re-energized.

But the past year of bitter arguments over racism and White privilege have taken a toll.

“Some of the things I’ve had to sit and swallow seared my soul,” said Cora Masters Barry, a commissioner since 2019. “Sometimes, it made me physically ill.”

“Sometimes, the meetings were pretty ugly,” said Gretchen Wharton, a commissioner since 2012. “Let’s just say you wouldn’t have wanted to be there.”

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), whose Committee of the Whole oversees the arts commission, said he was concerned by “uncordiality” among certain commissioners. Without naming anyone, he described some commissioners as being “at each others’ throats.” He said he didn’t want to see more “food fights over money” and believed that the clashes were over not substantive issues but “personality differences.”

He has so far refrained from forwarding the names of five commissioners to the D.C. Council for re-confirmation hearings. All of them are Black women. Two were known to speak out against racism and White privilege at commission meetings: Barry, wife of the late D.C. mayor Marion Barry; and Natalie Hopkinson, an arts scholar and professor at Howard University.

Both were appointed to the commission in 2019 by D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D). Racial disparities in covid-related deaths and the ongoing killings of unarmed Black people by police prompted Barry to call for the creation of a task force to address funding inequities in the arts.

Art has the power to heal, Barry explained, and D.C. needed all the healing it could get.

“Cora was very direct,” said Rhona Friedman, a member of the commission who is White. “She says what’s honestly on her mind. I do know some people tried to argue.”

But apparently few, if any, ever prevailed.

Said Maggie Fitzpatrick, another commissioner who is White: “I think it’s good having individuals like Cora and Natalie on the commission — people who see through the lens of social justice. They not only see and recognize systemic inequality, they also have the tools to break through it.”

Wharton said, “In order to make systemic change, you need to have very intense people in the right place at the right time, and Cora and Natalie are very intense.”

The commission’s monthly meetings were held online — not always the best format for communicating on sensitive subjects. Words get dropped; facial expressions distorted. Nuance is lost. Meanings change. And worse.

“[Someone] called me after a meeting saying she was upset because I had allowed someone to call her a racist,” Van Lee recalled. “I said, ‘That person didn’t call you a racist.’ So she called around to others who were on the call but couldn’t get anyone to say that the person had called her a racist. But she was convinced that is what she heard. I make a point of telling people before the meeting to make sure that what you heard was actually what was said.”

Despite the technical problems, what appeared at times to be shaping up as the commission’s worst year ever may well prove to be one of its best.

The reckoning continues and, though difficult and uncomfortable, honest talk pays off. “Good trouble,” both Barry and Fitzpatrick call it, quoting the late congressman John Lewis.

At the meeting during which the arts establishment made its presentations, Barry complimented the group for its deeply rooted good works throughout the city. “I am not a boogeyman,” she told them. “I just believe in fairness.”

Paul Tetreault, director of Ford’s Theatre, smiled and called the discussion “extraordinary.”

“We are partners, and we want to be part of the solution,” he told Barry. “We are not the boogeymen in this town. And neither are you.”

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.

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