A WHITE SUPREMACIST ‘MESS’

No one living today created white supremacy, but today’s public officials must be held accountable for separate-and-unequal arts policies that tilt the scales in favor of the rich, white and powerful, while mostly locking out the Black and marginalized.

Dr. Natalie Hopkinson and son Maverick on the day of testimony as a nominee for the District of Columbia Arts and Humanities Commission in January 2020.

I was hoping that with the outcome of the most recent national elections, that the paradigm of powerful white male politicians singling out Black women in civic life for public disrespect, condescension, and contempt, was behind us.

Not so. In his recent comments to the press and in recent legislation concerning the District of Columbia Arts and Humanities Commission, of which I am a member, Council of DC Chairman Phil Mendelson has fixated on my off-handed remarks during a private birthday roast for a fellow commissioner. I, quite accurately, called the arts commission “a mess.” As an arts and humanities scholar with two decades of publications on the subject, I can easily write a dissertation on said messiness based on my experiences in the past 18 months serving on the Commission. I learned new things about the audacity of white entitlement. These findings are empirical.

In the arts legislation that came up for a vote on Tuesday, the Council Committee report pointedly rejected my informed assessment, and argues instead that the Commission’s problems are “more likely about personality conflicts than substantive issues.” The report says the trouble arrived “18 months ago,” — this was when both Mrs. Cora Masters Barry and I joined the Commission.

The Chairman never bothered to ask me what I meant. (I did not realize I was giving public testimony in my friend’s backyard party). But since he is clearly confused about the “substantive issues” at hand, I am happy to explain. There is a casual culture of white privilege on the Commission of which a recent Washington Post expose of “cronyism and racism” among the staff and in policy only scratched the surface. Of course, no one living today created white supremacy, but today’s public officials must be held accountable for separate-and-unequal arts policies that tilt the scales in favor of the rich, white and powerful, while mostly locking out the Black and marginalized. In the 18 months that I have served, I along with my colleagues on the Commission, as well as a CAH Equity and Inclusion Task Force, have worked diligently to undo this “mess.”

Meanwhile, the Chairman and the outgoing Arts Commission Chair Kay Kendall have resisted, and refused to hold themselves accountable for their role in perpetuating the institutionalized racism that continues to run amok as I type.

Some facts: In Spring 2019, while I and the city’s go-go artists were protesting in the streets to stop the Council from starving and killing the only hospital East of the River, the Council advanced legislation to make the Arts Commission independent. The policy was supposed to fix what Chairman Mendelson saw as undue political influence of another powerful Black woman, Mayor Bowser.

However, in the process, the Council’s legislation gave a cooperative of the city’s wealthiest, most powerful arts organizations, most of them white, an overwhelming majority of them supporting European art forms, a permanent set-aside worth millions of dollars. This policy forever allowed these organization to bypass the competitive grants process and claim a third of the city’s now-$38 million annual arts budget.

This left the unwashed masses to fight over the remainder of the budget, where artists were forced to actually compete for grants and submit a signed “Arrest and Criminal Conviction Record.” The Council gave the richest and most powerful arts organizations a permanent entitlement. Meanwhile, everyone else could have their applications thrown out for falling victim to a racist criminal justice system or having too many unpaid parking tickets.

This entitlement was enshrined into District of Columbia law. In 2019.

As a supposedly newly independent Arts Commission, I and my colleagues voted in June 2020 to ask the Council of DC to remove this entitlement which belongs more in the land of Buckingham Palace than in a free, democratic America — Land of the Free. For the past year, Chairman Mendelson, giving directions to, and working alongside the now-outgoing Arts Commission Chair Kay Kendall, has explicitly refused to repeal this arrangement until we consulted with these powerful organizations, some of them with hundreds of millions of dollars in private endowments, on a new funding scheme.

Let me repeat: The Chair of the Council of DC required the Arts Commission to negotiate with grantees to remove their own entitlement.

In the Council’s recent proposed arts “equity” bill that was supposed to fix this arrangement, this group (the National Capital Arts Cohort) is still named for special consideration for facilities and building grants. To my knowledge, no other artists or arts organizations in the city were consulted on this “equity” bill. Just the entitled.

Is this what an independent arts Commission free of political meddling looks like?

There is so much more to say. Centuries of privilege, ethical rot, hired lobbyists, and cozy interlocking spheres of power led to this arrangement and currently upholds it. (An investigative journalist could look at the makeup of the boards of these powerful arts organizations that comprise this cohort, and how they intersect with big business and developers, as well as local election campaign contributions.)

There are so many more stories. For now, suffice to say, that I am looking forward to new leadership on the Commission, led by Reggie Van Lee, a Black man, a former artist, and a decorated management consultant with impeccable track record of turning around failing organizations.

I would hope that in the Chairman Mendelson’s stated intention to provide new “oversight” to this mess, that he respects the independence and expertise of the Commission, and that he and his colleagues on the Council take responsibility for their role in upholding elitism and white supremacy, which has no place in public life in 2021 — or ever.

UPDATES: June 21, 2021. Washington City Paper picks up this issue. Both DC Council Chairman Mendelson and former CAH Chair Kendall deny forcing the Commission to negotiate with most powerful and privileged grantees or make any promises for guaranteed grants, special privileges or access.

UPDATES: August 20, 2021. In an email to members, the leader of the most powerful cabal of DC arts organizations says Council Chair Mendelson and former CAH Chair Kendall promised to award his cohort millions in guaranteed, no bid-grants in the new funding formulas. The leader is upset that the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities unanimously voted to eliminate all special privilege and access and distribute grants equitably for applicants across the city. The leader of this group says he has been “betrayed,” that Chairman Mendelson will also be unhappy, and copies the lobbyist he paid $3,200 an hour to secure funding, and vows to regroup after Labor Day to devise a plan to force the Commission to reverse course. https://washingtoncitypaper.com/article/528794/new-formula-for-arts-commission-grants-vexes-fords-theater-director/

UPDATES: Sept. 2, 2021. Zachary Smalls of ArtNews picks up the issue to this national audience of arts insiders. In his article, he notes that Mendelson is holding up the nominations of the five incumbent arts commissioners, including Natalie Hopkinson and Cora Masters Barry. If the Chairman does not advance the nominations by October, 2021, they will be thrown off the Commission. https://news.artnet.com/art-world/washingtons-arts-organizations-pitted-against-each-other-2004861