With their future on the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities (DCCAH) in jeopardy, Cora Masters Barry and Dr. Natalie Hopkinson both found support among nearly a dozen D.C. Council members who countered Council Chair Phil Mendelson’s efforts to derail their nominations.
In the end, 11 council members voted in support of emergency legislation, introduced by D.C. Council member Robert White (D-At large), to reverse Mendelson’s decision. The D.C. Council then passed resolutions to approve the nominations of Barry and Hopkinson with opposition coming only from Mendelson.
Discussion on Nov. 2 about the matter revealed schisms among legislators about race and gender issues in the District. Mendelson, along with Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) who voted present [that is, declined to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’] on White’s emergency legislation, denounced their colleagues’ mention of racial and gender bias.
At times, Mendelson even discouraged debate about the issue and requested that the council quickly move to a vote. However, shortly before their vote, Council members Trayon White (D-Ward 8), Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5), Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7), Christina Henderson (I-At large), Elissa Silverman (I-At large) and Anita Bonds (D-At large) stood their ground as they reflected on their interactions with Barry and Hopkinson while expressing support for both nominees.
On a Mission to Shift Paradigms
Since their appointment nearly two years ago, Barry and Hopkinson have led an all-out assault against a system in which well-endowed, white-led organizations received millions of dollars in set-aside public funds while people-of-color-led organizations, particularly those with returning citizens at the forefront, struggled to receive government funding.
As head of the DCCAH Task Force on Equity, Inclusion and Belonging, Barry led the compilation of 44 recommendations intended to expand the DCCAH’s reach to nonwhite communities during the grant application process. Hopkinson spoke out against and compiled data about what she and Dr. Suzanne Goodney Lea described as the redlining of more than $28 million in District arts funding.
In August, the. D.C. Council approved legislation removing the allocation of 28 percent of DCCAH’s grant budget for the group known as National Capitol Art Cohort [NCAC]. Under the commission’s new grant formula, organizations with budgets of more than $1 million competed for a pot of $7.2 million while their counterparts making less than $1 million did the same for a $9.3 million pot.
NCAC member organizations, including Ford’s Theatre in Northwest, have since reportedly met to strategize in advance of the next budget season. Hopkinson, an arts researcher of 27 years and pioneer of the Don’t Mute DC movement, said Mendelson acted on behalf of the above-mentioned constituency whose members said they have felt slighted.
“Mendelson has unilaterally decided to silence us as a way to send a message that this is the type of work you don’t want,” Hopkinson said. “The DC Arts Commission was a private club. If you knew these people, you could get earmarked without applying.”
“Now it’s much more professionalized. The formula is equitable. It doesn’t make sense to give public money to groups with a $200 million endowment. It makes much more sense to make investments in smaller organizations,” she said.
Enduring Several Months of Pushback
As an independent agency, DCCAH evaluates and focuses on matters concerning the development of arts and humanities programming in the District. It consists of 17 members, 13 of whom are women, and nine who identify as African American. In June, the D.C. Council approved Reggie Van Lee’s appointment as DCCAH chair.
On Sunday, Mendelson defended his decision not to move forward with Barry and Hopkinson’s nominations in a statement that described them as polarizing figures in the District’s arts community. He also accused Barry of voting on grants concerning her organization and dismissed Hopkinson’s “The Redlining of DC Arts Grant Funding” graphic as misleading.
Van Lee wrote a letter to Mendelson in which he implored the council chairman to reconsider his decision. He also defended Barry, saying that she, along with other commissioners, voted blindly on submissions ranked by panelists. He went on to confirm that Barry didn’t serve as a panelist or participate on the grant-making committee that would’ve been more intimately involved with the process.
Over the last week, Barry has conducted meetings with At-large Council member White, and Council members Henderson, Bonds and Gray, each of whom she said decried any efforts to punish Black women who sought to create an equitable playing field for creatives of color.
Barry, who expressed hope that DCCAH would follow through on the 44 recommendations that her task force compiled last year, said the arts community has already benefited from the changes made within the last two years.
“People have already received grants to help build their companies to create art,” Barry said. “They’re getting more support because of the efforts of the task force, Reggie Van Lee and the other commissioners. I want them to continue to make sure they get a fair opportunity.”
Thinking About the Bigger Picture
On Monday, Barry and Hopkinson appeared at the “Don’t Mute Black Women” parade that started on the corner of 7th Street and Florida Avenue and wrapped up near the Reeves Center on 14th and U Street in Northwest with performances from Pure Elegance Band and TOB.
At-large Council member White and The Rev. Graylan Hagler counted among several speakers who criticized Mendelson’s actions and compelled audience members to elicit the support of their elected officials.
Amid the movement to extend Hopkinson and Barry’s tenure on DCCAH, people-of-color organizations have contacted Mendelson, Bowser and others. Audrey Hipkins of the Hurston/Wright Foundation counts among those who made their concerns known.
In her correspondence, Hipkins, the only Black panelist on NCAC’s grant review panel, expressed her shock upon finding that local organizations with millions of dollars in their coffers received significantly more in public funds than their counterparts with smaller budgets.
Hipkins went on to explain how DCCAH’s new funding formula has benefitted the Hurston/Wright Foundation, a 30-year organization committed to supporting Black writers. For instance, the $30,000 increase in grant funding allowed Hipkins and her fellow board members to hire one full-time staff member and possibly three more in the coming months.
At a time when it’s become even harder for smaller organizations to establish a strong foundation, Hipkins said such changes can make all the difference.
“I see a lot of people being able to invest in capacity building,” said Hipkins, the Hurston/Wright Foundation’s board chair.
“One of the hardest things [for smaller organizations] is the funding going to your programming. You don’t have time to develop the backend systems that allow you to grow and become stable,” she said.