Washington, DCs mayor and arts commission locked in conflict

Muriel Bowser has sparked controversy with her takeover of the Mayors Arts Awards and attempts to change city arts funding, despite opposition from council chairman Phil Mendelson Photo: Lorie Shaull

After months of escalating conflict, a political stand-off between Washington, DCs mayor, Muriel Bowser and the local council over the citys arts commission shows no signs of coming to a resolution. These tensions came to a head with the annual Mayors Arts Awards in November, which were seen by many in the local arts community as the latest attempt by the mayor to exert control over the citys arts agenda and its funding.

Since May, Bowser has launched an effort to revamp cultural affairs in the capital through a steady campaign to influence the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities (DCCAH), its budget, staff and mission. The government-run agency oversees the public art collection, issues grants to local artists and institutions, and organises art events in Washington, DC. The struggle began when the mayor proposed converting more than $8m of DCCAH grants into loans, prompting an outcry from artists and arts organisations. The DC city council intervened, passing a law in July to shore up the commissions independence.

In DC, there are some blind spots in how we define and preserve cultural value

That did not discourage the mayor, however. In September, her office took the dramatic step of changing the locks to the citys public art vault, which houses the 3,000 paintings, photographs, sculptures and other works in the Arts Bank Collection when they are not on display, and blocking access to any staff without permission from the citys Office of Cable Television, Film, Music and Entertainment. That agency is run by Angie Gates, a long-time ally of the mayors, who also temporarily served as interim director of the DCCAH. (She stepped down after a morality clause was added to the contracts the commission sent to grant recipients, raising concerns about censorship from the arts community.)

“In DC, there are some blind spots in how we define and preserve cultural value. Many publicly held assets have been handed over to the highest bidder,” says Dawne Langford, a curator and documentary producer. “So, its no surprise that the influx of money, coming partially as a result of rapid gentrification, would be seen as something up for grabs. There also isnt a broad understanding of the arts in general, particularly by those in the local government.”

Langford describes the mayors adventurism as a way to make the citys creative resources serve her administration. In recent years, DCCAHs budget has expanded, in part because the local council voted to dedicate a portion of the citys sales tax to its funding. The agencys operating budget runs to more than $30m this fiscal year, with most of that money dedicated to arts grants. Bowser sought to revert the budget to a mayoral appropriation, which would give her discretion over its spending, but she was overruled.

Council chairman Phil Mendelson

The city council has stepped up repeatedly to prevent Bowser from stripping assets and funds from DCCAH. Late in October, after council chairman Phil Mendelson passed another bill to cement the agencys independent status, Bowser vetoed the bill—only the third time she has attempted to block legislation during her four years as mayor. The council voted unanimously to override her veto.

Bowser also cancelled the annual Mayors Art Awards when she lost control of the DCCAH. She then relaunched the programme under a rival agency she created, the Office of Creative Affairs, which so far has no staff or budget. It is also managed by the entertainment office.

While Bowser has faced multiple setbacks in her efforts to wrest control over the arts in DC, she shows no signs of giving up. Mendelson recently enlisted the aid of the District Attorney Generals office, which issued a notice saying that Bowsers seizure of the public art collection is illegal, and ordering her to turn over the property tRead More – Source