By Micha Green, AFRO Washington, D.C. Editor, [email protected]

What About Wards 4, 7 and 8?

In the wake of the #DontMute movement happening in the District, which fights against the silencing of D.C. culture such as GoGo music, another agency important to maintaining and sustaining D.C. culture is now being threatened.  The D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities (CAH), under the Office of the Mayor, was one of the agencies mentioned in the District Council’s FY-2020 Budget proposal that would see some serious changes, and its new Executive Director Terrie Rouse- Rosario, is passionately pushing back on how some leaders are seeking to tamper with the CAH and its funds.

About six months ago, Rouse-Rosario took the helm as executive director of the Commission on the Arts and Humanities after a storied career leading organizations around the country. With 15 grant programs and work with the Office of the Mayor, the CAH provides funds, programs and educational outlets which promote the arts for residents and visitors alike to experience D.C.’s rich culture. Some of CAH’s initiatives include SummerSet D.C., Chuck Brown Day, The Mayor’s Arts Awards and programs like the National Endowment for the Arts, annual competition “Poetry Out Loud.”  

Executive Director of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, Terrie Rouse-Rosario is pushing back against the Council’s proposal to allocate one-third of its funds to specific organizations and to be removed from mayoral control. (Courtesy Photo)

Under Rouse-Rosario’s tutelage and with the Mayor’s excitement and approval a new Cultural Arts Plan was unveiled last month.  Rouse-Rosario explained part of her reasoning for joining CAH was because of the mayor’s immense support of the arts and ensuring that residents across all eight wards have access and support to continuing artistic endeavors.

“The mayor over the last three years has literally over doubled the amount of money going to the arts. For an administration to have that kind of foresight and to be able to get it done is unprecedented” Director Rouse-Rosario told the AFRO, in an exclusive interview. 

“At the same time we find ourselves going into the FY- 2020 budget where it appears that there are 21 organizations that have organized and are trying to ensure that they get 33 percent of that money,” Rouse-Rosario told the AFRO, and here lies one of the first reasons the director is fighting back.

In the FY-2020 budget proposal, the Council and Chairman Mendelson included a subtitle called, “Commission on the Arts and Humanities Independence and Funding Restructuring.” In that “restructuring,” the 21 organizations would receive 33 percent of CAH’s total annual budget.  

Chairman Mendelson’s office sent the AFRO a statement explaining the decision to allocate funds for certain arts organizations.  “The Council is making more dollars available for arts organizations and adopting a funding formula that arts groups requested and endorsed, in order to ensure a more uniform and equitable process for funding.”

Executive Director of the D.C. Commision of the Arts and Humanities does a private tour of their large local art collection.

Rouse-Rosario argues with 486 grantees receiving funding from CAH in 2019, allocating funds for a little over 20 organizations to receive about one- third of the budget is greedy and unfair.  

“We’re arriving at a point where the Council wants just 21 little organizations to get one-third of the budget which is not acceptable from my standpoint- and it’s not equitable,” she said.

Making matters more unequal, Rouse-Rosario and her team noted that the organizations chosen to receive further funding are concentrated to certain parts of the city.

“And of course, none of them happen to be in Wards 4,7 and 8, and these are groups that in the past have also received a good portion of the budget, particularly in this last year of earmarking,” Rouse-Rosario told the AFRO.  “So that group should not be determining how they get money and then how everyone else gets money.”

With only certain wards reflected in this allocation of funding, Rouse-Rosario argues that this proposition also jeopardizes the full scope of D.C. culture.

“That’s their way of defining the culture.  A number of them happen to be the performing arts organizations, most of them are in Ward 2,” she told the AFRO.

As the city’s artistic fabric is far more elaborate than traditional performing arts spaces on certain sides of the city, Rouse-Rosario is concerned with exclusivity of the funds allocation; yet inequitable granting of money is not the only issue the director is fighting in the proposed budget.

In the Council’s attempted restructuring of CAH, there is a plan  to make the organization an independent entity.

“The most devastating part of all these factors, has been on the part of the Council and Council member Mendelson to take the entire CAH out from under the executive- in other words take it away from the mayor,” Rouse-Rosario told the AFRO. “They’re reasoning is that the Commissioners need to have more involvement with the agencies.

Rouse-Rosario argues that removing CAH from the mayor’s office would be detrimental to, not only the organization, but the District’s work and fight towards statehood.

“The way they were setting us up was going to set us back 50 years, and put us out of compliance with almost every other state arts agency in the United States and the territories,” she told the {AFRO}.

“This move would insulate CAH from the oversight of the government, which would be in conflict with the federal-state partnership requirements set by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), “ Rouse-Rosario wrote in a letter sent to the Council.

In response, Chairman Mendelson’s office sent the AFRO the following statement:  “The Council ensures that an independent Arts & Humanities Commission will continue as intended under the law established in 1979.”  

At press time it was not apparent which mandate Chairman Mendelson is referring to  as CAH responded saying, “The Commission on the Arts and Humanities was established under D.C. Law 1-22, effective 1975; not 1979.”

So how can the Council propose a budget and restructuring for a long-running mayoral appointed commission?

The Council proposes an annual budget and creates or amends legislation to ensure that their financial propositions correlate with law and is upheld by leaders and lawmakers.

According to Rouse-Rosario, certain commissioners were aware of the impending budget work done by the Council and met with the Chairman to express their concerns.

“It’s sort of their way of responding to a number of Commissioners, who are part of this move that they want to be in control and a few of them were also finding their term- because there are 3-year terms- ending and they want to be appointed back,” Rouse-Rosario told the {AFRO}. “It’s almost like a revolt.  It’s a like a coup… and they [the commissioners] actually got in front of it,” she told the AFRO.

However, Rouse-Rosario said that the Council is not being completely transparent or honest in justifying their proposal for CAH and hopes to collaborate with the Members in order to find a way to further perpetuate the goals of equity.  

“A great deal of misinformation, misunderstanding and personal bias framed the rationales for this legislation, and I would welcome the opportunity to discuss these matters in greater depth in the hopes of finding a more appropriate path forward for this agency.”