A Significant Increase in D.C. Arts Commission Funding? Not Exactly.

by Jonathan Fischer

Mayor Vince Gray‘s proposed budget for fiscal year 2013 dropped today, and on first glance, arts boosters might be pleased with what they see: an increase to the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities to $7,635,142 from $4,798,246. Unfortunately for them, the boost is not what it seems.

For the current fiscal year, the arts commission divvied up a piddly $3.7 million in arts grants, splitting the money between more than 200 organizations and individual artists. Compare this to nearly $14 million, the amount the commission handed out in fiscal year 2009, before the first of several slashes to its budget.

Alas, the bulk, $2.5 million, of the fiscal year 2013 increase represents a transfer of a federal program, the National Capital Arts and Cultural Affairs grants, that already funds a number of medium and large D.C. arts organizations, like Dance Place, Arena Stage, and the Kennedy Center. NCACA has shrunk in recent years—to the point that Arena postponed a production in its season in anticipation of more cuts. President Barack Obama‘s proposed federal budget suggests moving the diminished program, currently administered by the federal Commission on Fine Arts,  to D.C. control.

If the transfer happens—and amid Congress’ testy budget deliberations, it may not—the additional $2,500,000 could conceivably aid more D.C.  groups. Right now, only off-the-National-Mall D.C. arts groups that raise at least $1 million a year for three years qualify for the grants. The funds are distributed according to a formula, not based on merit. But Lionell Thomas, the executive director of the arts commission, says that if the transfer goes through, his organization might ditch the current funding model in favor of a panel-review process similar to how commission grants are currently administered. The NCACA dollars would remain within a separate funding category, he says, although the qualifying criteria could change.

Take away the anticipated federal transfer, and that leaves $5,135,142 in city funds and other federal dollars—a smidgen more than last year’s approved budget. The increase to the D.C. arts commission includes funding for two new full-time employees—an arts program specialist within the arts commission and an executive director for the Lincoln Theatre. Late last year, the commission took over the troubled U Street NW venue. The executive director position is part of $350,000 within the commission’s budget that will cover the Lincoln’s operational costs. (The mayor’s budget also includes $1 million for capital improvements to the theater.)

There will probably be no increase in grant funding, Thomas said, adding that he supports the mayor’s budget—and that he was pleased the arts commission didn’t see any cuts this year.

Still, level funding is disappointing news to the local arts groups that lobbied over the past several months for an increase in the arts commission’s grant pool. “The D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities cannot maintain arts service in all eight wards with one quarter of the funding it had three years ago,” writes Rob Bettmann, a local dancer and the advocacy chair of D.C. Advocates for the Arts, a group that helped lead a recent day of lobbying for increased arts funding. “I’m very disappointed by what we’re seeing today.”

Elsewhere, the Office of Motion Picture and Television Development got an increase of about $143,000, to $869,450 and the Office of Cable Television got an increase of $67,000, to $8,591,720.

Original Publication URL: http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/artsdesk/general/2012/03/23/a-significant-increase-in-d-c-arts-commission-funding-not-exactly/