DC Arts and Humanities Commission Should Hold Public Hearings

There are many people responsible for the additional $6.8 million that was allocated in the 2013 budget to the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. Thanks go to Commission members; the hard work of many Arts activists in the District; Councilmember Jack Evans; Councilmember Vincent Orange’s Committee and Mayor Vincent Gray.

This additional money was allocated to the Commission for the fiscal year which begins October 1, 2012. It is one of the largest increases in Arts funding anywhere in the country at a time when arts and humanities budgets are being slashed at the local, state and federal levels of government.

The District of Columbia has always had a vibrant ARTS community and that continues despite the difficult economy. The ARTS are a major economic boon to the District providing 1000’s of jobs and having a huge positive financial impact. This includes large theatre groups like the Shakespeare Theatre Company, Arena Stage, the Kennedy Center with its theater, opera and ballet companies; to smaller theatres, dance companies, art galleries, music venues and individual artists and musicians. Over the years government support for the ARTS has ebbed and flowed in the District often depending on whether the Council or Mayor took a real interest and were actual patrons of the arts. We are fortunate today that a majority of the Council and the Mayor appear to understand that supporting the ARTS is important not only for the image of our city and its economy; but for people’s general well-being. Societies are often remembered only for their art and culture when everything else has faded away.

My one concern with this new funding is that the Commission didn’t hold a public hearing to get ideas on how to spend it and determine where its focus should be. While the Council held hearings and many arts supporters turned out to testify and thankfully this funding was passed without earmarks; that left the Commission with having sole jurisdiction on how it should be allocated. Like all other agencies handing out public funds there must be total transparency. According to Commission staff time constraints led them to make all the decisions internally without any new public input. It would be my hope that in the coming year the Commission will hold hearings to gather input from the arts and humanities communities on how to spend the money in future years should it continue to be allocated as well as any additional funding they might receive.

It appears that of the new $6.8 million allocation $3.8 million will be added to the current grant pool and made available for grants to those who submitted grant requests that were due before the new budget numbers were announced. The other $3 million will be divided between two new grant programs that will be announced by October 1st. One is a new humanities program which will have $ .5 million allocated to it and the second is a long-term sustainability program that will have the remaining $2.5 million allocated to it.

Like so many in D.C., I am a big supporter of the ARTS and a strong advocate for the Commission. There are many dedicated people that serve on the Commission and its staff. But like all public servants they must never forget to continuously involve the public and solicit their ideas and suggestions for how public money can and should be spent.