D.C. artists say funding is becoming more equitable. But there's more work to be done. Long criticized for an inequitable grant process, the D.C. arts commission seems to be moving in the right direction. But is it going far enough?
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D.C. artists say funding is becoming more equitable. But there's more work to be done.

Seshat Walker at the Kenilworth Park. Walker created her own fund to support Black women artists in the D.C. area. Dee Dwyer/WAMU hide caption

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Dee Dwyer/WAMU

Last year, the Anacostia-based performance group Theater Alliance put on a series of four short recorded plays titled "City in Transition," each one focusing on one of D.C.'s four quadrants and written by a playwright of color from the region. The play titled Fundable, described as a "Southeast satire," was set up like a game show where three nonprofit leaders competed for a $100,000 grant, only to discover that it was pre-arranged for the sole white contestant to win from the start.

"The three contestants jump through these ridiculous hoops in order to be considered for funding," says playwright Khadijah Ali-Coleman, who wrote Fundable based on her own experiences in the nonprofit world in Southeast D.C. The contestants in the fictional show have to navigate the "language of funding" and are constantly reminded of the stereotype that any project involving Black teens needs to feature hip-hop in some way for them to understand it.

Though the production was a comedy, it was a dark one: much of the play's satire is scarily close to reality, says Ali-Coleman, who in December became director of the Hurston/Wright Foundation, a D.C.-based nonprofit that supports Black writers. While the foundation got its start more than 30 years ago, Hurston/Wright only recently received enough grant funding to hire a full-time staff.

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"We've been around for as long as we have and still, we're considered an emerging nonprofit because of this landscape that we've had to navigate in terms of funding," says Ali-Coleman. "There's an abundance of funding that exists in the city. So what is happening where repeatedly, these smaller and usually BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, people of color]-led organizations continue to be overlooked when it comes to this funding?"

It's a question that city leaders, activists, and artists have been wrestling with for years, but has come to the forefront in the wake of George Floyd's murder and during a pandemic that has put a spotlight on overlooked inequities. The District's grant process, in particular, has been under scrutiny — but thanks to the work of vocal organizers and new leadership in the agency that decides where the city's arts funding goes, many artists can agree: progress is being made.

Natalie Hopkinson brought these issues to light last fall, when she butt political heads with D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson. Hopkinson, a Howard professor, author, and organizer behind the #DontMuteDC movement, published a missive in October titled, "The Color of Art. The blog post featured a map, which Hopkins created with Suzanne Goodney Lea of the University of the District of Columbia, that sought to expose "redlining" within the world of D.C. arts funding. It showed that over 78% of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities' (DCCAH) 2020 grant budget of nearly $27 million in tax-generated funds went to the four wards where white residents are a majority. Hopkinson also included evidence that she and Cora Masters Barry, the outspoken widow of the late Mayor Marion Barry, were essentially being blacklisted from the DCCAH by Mendelson, whose Committee of the Whole oversees the arts commission.

After Hopkinson posted the "Color of Art" map, she says artists across the city flooded her with messages like, "Wow, so this is why I never got any grants?"

In a statement, Mendelson called Hopkinson's map "misleading" since it didn't outwardly acknowledge that the city's largest arts organizations — and therefore, the largest grant recipients — are located downtown; he also pointed out that those large organizations provide resources to organizations and artists in other wards. Mendelson stood by his decision not to renominate Hopkinson and Cora Masters Barry, referring to their "divisiveness." Following protests on U Street and support from Mayor Muriel Bowser, Barry and Hopkinson, both Black women, were ultimately voted back on the arts commission.

The whole ordeal illustrated what some referred to as a larger "racial reckoning" within the agency and left the District's arts community with some important questions, including: Why do some smaller organizations struggle to receive funding while institutions with much larger budgets receive major grants with seemingly less effort? What strides are being made within the DCCAH to improve equity? Why do leaders of arts organizations, especially ones that are Black-led, say they have to have money to get money? Why does arts funding seem like such a game, as Ali-Coleman expressed in her play?

Sculptor, muralist, tattoo artist and musician, Jay Coleman works on a commissioned mural on the side of the Cairo Wine & Liquor in Dupont. "I think it's really about communication because there's always money," he says. Dee Dwyer/WAMU hide caption

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Dee Dwyer/WAMU

It's not like D.C. doesn't have the money. The District gives more money per capita to arts programs than any state or U.S. territory, according to the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, and arts funding actually doubled nationwide in 2022. The DCCAH budget is slated to grow from $38 million to nearly $45 million for Fiscal Year 2023, more than half of which will go to general operating support for organizations to use however they choose, according to the commission's leaders.

Maryam Foye, a consultant who helps local creatives and arts organizations find funding for their work, says she sat on grant panels for about seven years and witnessed the inequitable distribution of funds firsthand.

"D.C. gives out the most money to artists in the country," Foye says. "For them to have such a disparity when it comes to who is being funded, it's like they're wasting an opportunity to set a precedent for the rest of the country about how to equitably distribute funds throughout the city."

Seshat Walker, a longtime D.C. playwright and poet, witnessing the same disparities, decided to create The aSHE Fund, which grants $2,500 to five local Black women each year to help them complete a creative project.

"It's not about me making money — I don't make money from it. It's about me trying to support my own community that still ... they still don't get the support that they need," Walker says. "You see a lot of the same names come up when the grants are announced, and that's sad."

Walker adds that the lack of prominent cultural spaces in neighborhoods like hers — Deanwood, in Ward 7 — contributes to a lack of visibility for individual artists who live there, and thus, less arts funding.

"There's no movie theater on my side. There's no place to go see a concert on my side. There's barely a bar, like a good, decent bar to hear live music," Walker says. "So we don't have those rich spaces for people to gather and experience art. So when you don't have that, possibly, the city is like, 'Well, if there are no spaces there, then there are no artists there.'"

Walker does acknowledge that in the past 15 years or so, additions like THEARC (Town Hall Education Arts Recreation Campus) and the Anacostia Arts Center have had a positive impact on the arts scene in Southeast.

A Dorothy I. Height mural created by Candice S. Taylor and Kaliq Customs in Southeast D.C. Dee Dwyer/WAMU hide caption

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Dee Dwyer/WAMU

Some artists from underfunded wards have simply learned to make moves without the help of the D.C. government. Hurston/Wright's Khadijah Ali-Coleman says that for years, her performance collective, Liberated Muse, has relied on the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage program to provide a space for showcasing their work. (The Kennedy Center is a charitable organization that receives millions in both private and federal funds, with a net worth that ballooned to $505 million during the 2020 pandemic.)

"That has been the way that a lot of artists in the D.C. area have been able to really create any type of sustainability," Ali-Coleman says. "There are so many obstacles to really being able to sustain yourself if you're a small, emerging, or just low-income organization."

However, there have been significant signs of progress to the arts commission and its grant process in recent years.

Reggie Van Lee, a "management guru" and arts philanthropist, took the helm as chairman of the arts commission last year after previously leading the agency's diversity and inclusion task force. That group made over 40 recommendations for changing the agency to be more inclusive.

Among the biggest changes, the commission tossed out its old grant formula that annually reserved 28% of its grants budget for a 21-member group called the National Capital Art Cohort (NCAC). The group included the Phillips Collection, Ford's Theatre, Shakespeare Theatre Company, and other organizations with budgets over $1 million — a group that in FY21 split a pot of $8.3 million in a non-competitive process that saw each organization receive an average of $395,000. This created what some have called an "insider's club" for organizations that had the resources — and the ear of local lawmakers — required to get larger grants. No groups from wards 4, 5, 7, or 8 were included in that cohort.

In August, Washington City Paper acquired records showing that members of the NCAC, including Ford's Theatre and Arena Stage, were paying a lobbyist thousands of dollars per hour to advance their interests among D.C. officials.

With the new formula, these institutions will compete for grants ranging from $125,000 to $200,000; while smaller organizations will split $9.3 million and receive grants ranging from $40,000 to $140,000. This has nearly doubled arts funding for some small to midsize organizations — for example, Hurston/Wright's grant went up from around $44,000 to $72,000 for FY22.

Artists and Creative JunkFood co-founders Candice Taylor (left), Nabeeh Bilal (right) sit on a bus stop installation they were commissioned to create. Dee Dwyer/WAMU hide caption

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Dee Dwyer/WAMU

On the whole, of the $15.8 million in general operating support grants given out this year, just under 24% percent of it went to wards 4, 5, 7, and 8 — the wards Hopkinson highlighted in her map. Organizations from these wards received an average grant of about $78,000 to $107,000; while organizations from the other wards received an average grant ranging from around $104,000 to $124,500. It's not a complete overhaul of the system, but a shift toward more equitable funding, nonetheless. (A full list of FY22 grantees, including individual fellowship recipients, is available on the DCCAH website.)

There have been a few other notable changes. The DCCAH has dropped the matching funds requirement, a rule that some leaders of arts organizations considered burdensome, requiring them to prove they could spend an amount equal to the funds their grants provided. Also, nonprofits with a budget under $250,000 that apply for an annual program called the LiftOff grant are now eligible to renew the grant for a second year.

Additionally, for the first time, panelists — who volunteer to evaluate grant applicationsare being compensated with a $250 stipend. It's one way the commission hopes to attract panelists from within the arts community to help select grant winners.

"I'm starting to find, as artists, we gotta get more into the policy side of things and put ourselves in positions to be decision makers so we can open up doors for other people," says Nabeeh Bilal, one half of the multimedia arts studio CreativeJunkFood, and a Ward 8 resident. "If you don't, then somebody completely unconnected to it is going to be doing that, and we're going to feel like we're just being handed scraps."

Similarly, Jay Coleman, a visual artist and winner of the 2021 EOTR Distinguished Artist Award, says, "It's really about communication, because there's always money."

"It's [about] who has access to it, who they're going to let have access to it — and can you be in that conversation?" he continues. "And to be in the conversation, you got to be in the meeting ... People got to share where the meeting is. You got to ask where the meeting is. And hopefully somewhere in between, you can find a mixing point there."

The commission is also starting to collect more comprehensive demographic data on who receives grants, according to David Markey, DCCAH's deputy director.

"Last year, we were intentional in adding a pretty significantly weighted criteria — it was weighted at 30% of the score — that focused on equity, inclusion, diversity, access," Markey says. The application now requires organizations to answer questions about how diverse their programming, boards, and audiences are.

The commission is currently in the middle of selecting the next grant recipients, and Markey says "it's pretty spotty" in terms of which organizations are demonstrating their commitment to equity work in their strategic plans. But it's getting better, he says, even if it's happening slowly.

Maryam Foye, a consultant for small arts organizations and individual artists, says, "D.C. gives out the most money to artists in the country." The method those funds are distributed could use work, she says. Dee Dwyer/WAMU hide caption

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Dee Dwyer/WAMU

Reggie Van Lee, the DCCAH chairman, and Markey say the commission has made improvements to simplify the lengthy grant application process that often proves onerous for smaller institutions that don't have a full-time staffer to fill them out. Part of the difficulty in making changes to the grant formula is that the commission answers to the D.C. Office of the City Administrator, which requires a lot of compliance paperwork, Markey says. The commission does, however, offer recorded training sessions on weekends and evenings. They also offer feedback on application drafts submitted at least a week before the deadline.

In response to criticism about lack of funding for individual artists, the DCCAH increased its fellowships budget by about 70%, Markey says. With the demographic data it collects, the commission can make some significant adjustments.

"One of the pieces that stuck out, for example, was that we were not funding Black female artists at the same rate to which they were applying," says Markey. "So that's good data for me to go, 'OK, what can we do to, one, build the pool of black female applicants?' And then also, 'How can we help them get across the finish line and be more successful in that process?'"

Maryam Foye, the arts consultant, says the necessary equity work isn't easy and is connected to much larger equity issues, such as affordable housing, that are a problem citywide. "It doesn't mean just doing open calls and letting people know that there are grants out there," she says. "It means doing the extra work to make sure that everybody who deserves to be funded has the opportunity to be funded, and partnering with other agencies and other organizations to make sure that our artists aren't being pushed out because they can't afford housing."

Natalie Hopkinson agrees that this work will take some time. She believes in Van Lee as a leader and in her fellow commissioners' commitment to change, and says the commission now begins most conversations with equity in mind.

"We're still catching up from years of the scales being tilted in the wrong direction, so it's a long road," she says. "But I'm pleased that we're moving in the right direction."

This story is from DCist.com, the local news site of WAMU.

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