After six months of bitterness, the Washington, DC Culture Commission is experiencing a progressive upheaval with great repercussions


In an eleventh hour of a case that has rocked the Washington, DC arts scene since last spring, two DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities (DCCAH) nominees who pushed for racial justice in grants were finally confirmed on on Eve of the November 3rd deadline.

Earlier this week, Cora Masters Barry and Natalie Hopkinson greeted dozens of activists who gathered on U Street to demand that the Washington DC Council confirm their nominations for the City Art Commission, where they have a budget of US $ 40 million Dollars. But after the chairman of the legislature refused a hearing on their nominations, an urgent law was needed the night before to force a vote among lawmakers that saved their positions on the commission.

According to protesters, this ongoing political dispute over the Arts Commission has turned into a major referendum on how Washington’s local government serves the black-majority population.

For the past six months, Barry and Hopkinson have received backlash for urging the DCCAH to change their grant formula to support a more racially diverse cohort of cultural groups. The adjustments were passed unanimously earlier this year, but angered several large Washington arts organizations, whose grants have dropped by more than 60 percent. Phil Mendelson, chairman of the DC council, sided with the institutions, expressing dismay at the size of the cuts, and then blocked activists’ confirmation by refusing to vote.

DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson makes remarks as Mayor Muriel Bowser presents her budget for Fiscal Year 2021 to Washington, DC City Council Photo: Bill O’Leary / The Washington Post via Getty Images.

The women waited almost six months for a hearing, and Mendelson often referred to a “mess” within the commission without naming them. His rhetoric continued to sour over the weekend as the confirmation deadline drew near. “Unfortunately, many members of the commission have complained to me about their split,” Mendelson said in a statement on October 31, listing a number of unfounded insults against the women that he claimed had heard from other officials. “Cora Barry and Natalie Hopkinson angered and estranged their colleagues, and not in a positive way.”

Despite Mendelson’s stance, the tenor of the chairman’s testimony still came as a shock to Barry and Hopkinson. “He has chosen to take the route of character assassination,” Hopkinson said before the vote. “It is a sad and demoralizing statement that votes for inclusion can be disfellowshipped and rejected.”

Mayor Muriel Bowser nominated the two women to commission in 2019 during a lull in a protracted feud between her and the district lawmaker over who controls DCCAH. As political resentment rose again, so did allegations of nepotism and racism against the organization, which had fought for independence since 2018, while going through four executive directors since 2018.

Management consultant Reginald Van Lee was appointed chairman of the commission earlier this year; Meanwhile, Hopkinson and Barry have been waiting for their audience with the Council. Hopkinson is a professor at Howard University who researches the history of go-go music. Barry is a longtime community advocate and was married to the late Mayor Marion Barry.

“To the best of my knowledge, none of the commissioners have been disruptive, divisive or otherwise unprofessional,” Van Lee wrote in an email to councilors over the weekend, saying that Mendelson’s other allegation this weekend was that Barry was against ethics and conflict Interest laws when she was voting on a grant for her own organization was inaccurate because the panel blindly selected applicants.

The DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities oversees a budget of roughly $ 40 million to support large institutions and public art initiatives like this 2014 mural by local artist Stan Squirewell and poet Afaa Michael Weaver. Photo: Lucian Perkins for the Washington Post via Getty Images.

Bowser also defended the two women, criticizing the DC Council on Jan. press conference in which she described Mendelson’s recent complaints as sexist.

Finally, on Monday, Councilor Robert White – who recently announced a candidacy for mayor next year – tabled an emergency bill to approve the Barry and Hopkinson nominations and effectively override Mendelson’s authority. On Wednesday, the Emergency Act went through the legislature and all council members except Mendelson voted to put the women back in their seats on the commission.

“Refocusing the commission would not be an easy task,” White said in a statement. “But it really bothers me that two black women who wouldn’t take no for an answer are described as angry black women.”

Hopkinson said she was delighted that councilors like White were working for her. “It was really confirmatory,” she told Artnet News. “I will continue to advance these issues of inclusion and equity in the art world.”

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