THE BLOG
04/08/2014 02:56 pm ET Updated Jun 08, 2014

Five Suggestions to Improve Arts Policy in DC's FY15

With the democratic primary completed, it's time to assess mayor Gray on the arts.

Shortly before mayor Fenty took office, in 2006, the longtime executive director of the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities (DCCAH) stepped down. Eventually, mayor Fenty appointed a marketing professional named Gloria Nauden to lead the city's arts agency. With no prior professional experience in government service or arts granting, agency director Nauden was forced to balance an expansive vision for marketing the DC arts with a shrinking budget. The DCCAH budget was cut almost seventy percent from FY09 to FY12, from over $14 million down to under $4 million. During that period, the agency funded some very interesting pop-up art programs, and video programming, including a dozen episodes of "Art202", some produced by local high school students. But at the same time, Nauden reduced or eliminated a number of important, long-standing, granting programs, and increased the size of her own staff. Of course, many questioned whether Nauden's priorities were in line with the interests of the local arts community.

When mayor Gray took office he replaced Nauden with an experienced government arts administrator -- Lionell Thomas. Still, in successive years mayor Gray's budget proposals failed to increase arts support from mayor Fenty's levels. (Each of the past three years the city council, led by ward two councilmember Jack Evans, has increased DC's arts budget from mayor Gray's proposals.) And, granting programs, overdue for sensible overhaul, have remained largely untouched since mayor Fenty's term ended.

With funding for DC's arts agency at least briefly stabilized in the proposed FY15, here are five suggestions to improve arts policy in the coming year.

1. A breakout of granting programs should be included in the public version of the DC budget. Currently, all granting funds are broken into just two larger categories, obscuring any meaningful understanding of the arts budget prior to its implementation. Granting program transparency would be quick and easy, and have far-reaching impacts. As advocates it's impossible to see - now - where the city plans to spend FY15 arts monies. Including grant program details would allow policy-makers, artists and arts organizations to see the mayor's arts policy priorities.

2. The city should consider separating funding for the arts and the humanities. Within the twelve granting programs available from the DCCAH this past year there were granting programs focused toward visual artists, and public art, but none focused toward the humanities. The solution isn't to create such a granting program, but to separate humanities support from arts support.

Currently, already, the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities serves as DC's state arts agency, and receives our annual National Endowment for the Arts state block grant, while the Humanities Council of DC serves as DC's state humanities agency, and receives DC's state block grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Humanities Council offers grants for the Humanities, while the Commission on the Art and Humanities is apparently focused on the Arts. The DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities continues to run a small annual writing competition, and administer DC's poet laureate program. Those responsibilities should be transferred to the Humanities Council so that real focus can be given to the arts, and the humanities, through these two existing, separate, granting bodies. There are similarities among dance, theater, visual arts, music and the humanities, but the under-funded Humanities Council is already serving DC's humanities community. Let the arts commission focus on arts support.

3. DC should examine how it makes grants to the arts. Grant panel construction and review hasn't been re-considered since the Williams administration, and the model currently in use by DC is different than the ones in use by neighboring states, and counties. Maybe no changes are necessary, but a hearing in the city council would allow for an airing of ideas, increase understanding of the current model, and encourage discussion of other models.

4. Under former-director Nauden, the agency staff grew in size from thirteen to eighteen full time employees, plus consultants. The Virginia Commission on the Arts has five staff total, administrating seven granting programs. DC currently has eighteen staff administrating twelve granting programs. Taxpayer funds spent on agency staff are monies not distributed to local artists and arts organizations. It's important that money for the arts actually reaches the directors, film-makers, musicians, dancers, actors, playwrights, poets, choreographers, and arts organizations it's intended for.

5. The city has still not addressed the need for increased operating support for larger DC-based organizations. In 2011, National Capital Arts and Cultural Affairs (NCACA) grants were reduced, and then eliminated. For twenty years the NCACA granting program was a backbone for major local theaters. While the DCCAH's pre-2011 operating support grants have been adjusted, the agency should fully separate its operating support programs so that deserving large organizations can count on city support year after year. There is no reason for the District not to follow the model of other major municipalities in providing consistent support to significant cultural institutions. Additionally, the recently eliminated Young Artist grant program, which provided opportunities for District residents under age thirty at a total annual cost of a single major operating support grant, should be restored. While these programs serve disparate communities, both are important components serving a diverse, vibrant, arts community.

Arts leaders in the city council, including councilmembers Evans, Graham, Barry, McDuffie, Orange, Bonds, and Grosso, filled some of the mayoral void in arts policy leadership over the last three years. With FY 15 budget hearings in full swing prior to the general election, we are entering an unusual transition period prior to the new mayor's inauguration. It will be interesting to see which of the above suggestions are considered, and which ignored, by the outgoing mayor and council, city council, and the new mayor.