It's been two years since an unarmed man, 25-year-old Bijan Ghaisar, was shot and killed by police in Fairfax County. Kojo sits down with Bijan's family to discuss their quest for answers.
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser has created a Creative Affairs Office to serve as an intermediary between the government and the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, which will soon be independent.
What do we know about the new office? And how is the local artists community responding? We’ll get an update.
Produced by Cydney Grannan
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser has created a new office to serve as a liaison between the District government and the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, which is about to become an independent agency. The unveiling of the Creative Affairs Office comes at a time when the relationship between the local arts community and the D.C. government is tense, not to mention that the District's first-ever cultural plan is being rolled out now. Here to give us an update is Mikaela Lefrak. She's WAMU's Arts and Culture reporter, and the host of the "What's with Washington” podcast. Mikaela, good to see you.
MIKAELA LEFRAKHey, Kojo.
NNAMDIMikaela, what do we know about the Creative Affairs office so far?
LEFRAKWe know its name and, honestly, very little else right now. But before I dive into that, I just want to give a brief overview of why this matters to somebody who might not be, you know, looking at D.C. government offices and plans day-in, day-out, like I do. So, basically, the good news about this office is that arts spending is in the news. And it's a big issue here in D.C., because we have a huge arts economy, but we also have a lot of struggling artists and small arts organizations that are vying for this very limited pot of money, of grant funding that the city administers. And it's administered by this organization, this group called the Commission on Arts and Humanities, which, for a long time, was headed up by a mayoral appointee, so somebody that Mayor Muriel Bowser would appoint. And, as of October 1st, it's becoming an independent agency.
LEFRAKAnd, so, recently, last week, the mayor announced that she is launching her own office, this Creative Affairs Office, that is going to be -- in her words -- it's going to be this liaison, this administrative body that kind of liaises between the Mayor's Office and the Commission on Arts and Humanities. And, other than that, we don't know too much of what that means. You know, this new office doesn't have control over the grant-making process. You know, some people say that it's just going to be another level of bureaucracy, that it's a waste of government funds. The mayor, I think, sees it as a way to retain control over the city's arts programming, and maybe exert an influence that she sees as useful.
NNAMDIWhere does this new office fit into the city's bureaucracy?
LEFRAKSure. So, it is going to be under this other organization called the Office of Cable Television, Film, Music and Entertainment. There is no good acronym for that one, so I'm just going to have to say all of those words every time we mention it. But the head of this new office is going to report to the head of that office. Her name is Angie Gates. She's a longtime supporter and friend of the mayor.
NNAMDIWe invited her to join the show, Angie Gates, but we were told she is traveling, and is not able to join the show. There have been a couple of major changes to the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. Tell us what those are.
LEFRAKYeah. So, as I mentioned, it is becoming this independent agency. So, the mayor will nominate people who are going to be on its board, on its governing body. And then the D.C. Council is in charge of approving all of those people. The acting director, Terrie Rouse-Rosario, resigned two weeks ago, and there's no new director yet. And they're also in the middle of going through their whole grant-making process. So, the folks who will be the recipients of all those arts grants will be announced this fall.
LEFRAKAnd, honestly, there is some concern within the D.C. Council about, you know, this transition from it being a, you know, being headed by a mayoral appointee to being an independent commission. Chairman Phil Mendelson, I was just on the phone with him, and he said that their transition plan is not really a plan at all. He hasn't seen any helpful details or plans coming out of that office just yet.
NNAMDIJoining us in in studio is Victoria Murray Baatin. She's the associate artistic director at Mosaic Theater. She's also chair of the Policy Committee for Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd's Arts, Humanities and Creative Economy Committee. She's also a member of Theater Washington's Board of Governors. Victoria, thank you so much for joining us.
VICTORIA MURRAY BAATINKojo, thank you so much for having me.
NNAMDIWhat are the biggest questions you have about how the Creative Affairs Office will work, and what hopes and concerns do you have for the new office?
BAATINYou know, for me, the questions really abound. As Mikaela said, it's, you know, we know the name, and we know who is going to be in charge of it. So, the questions really abound from there. But I do think it's important, as a creative community, specifically as a District community at large, it's important not to speculate, but rather to articulate what it is that we'd like to see reflected in this office. And so, to that end, Kojo, as the name suggests, what I would really hope is that this office would serve all of the creative industries, broadly speaking. And so, when we say creative industries, what does that mean? What are we referring to?
BAATINBeing able to have a place for gastronomy, for example, the culinary arts, linking food and culture, architecture, design arts, fashion design, graphic design, product design, IT and software design, galleries, museums. There are craftspeople here, artisans. There's the whole Made in D.C. movement that we've got. The National Museum for Women in the Arts has their Make-HER Fair, for women makers. There's a lot of energy that's being generated through the creative economy. And, of course, that which undergirds it all is music performance and the visual arts.
LEFRAKAnd if I could just jump in there real quickly, you know, that expansion of what it means to be an artist or have an arts organization is actually something that some leaders of arts organizations have told me actually concerns them. You know, they say the culinary arts shouldn't be included in this. Gastronomy isn't, you know, part of what should under the Commission of Arts and Humanities. The mayor's been the other side of that. She really wants to expand that breadth. And there are positives and negatives, and one of the main negatives being, you know, some say we have a limited pot of funding. We can't just keep spreading out arts funding thinner and thinner.
LEFRAKWhich is why I think the important role of the Arts Commission, I think the commissioners did an amazing job and really held the line in terms of making sure that the Commission on the Arts and Humanities was there to specifically support the arts and humanities in the city. And with the creation of this new Office of Creative Affairs, we hope that we can broaden that mandate, so that there is a government arm that's able to address some of those needs that were going untouched for some time.
NNAMDIMikaela, this comes at a time when the relationship between the D.C. government and the local artist community has had some challenges. What's been happening?
LEFRAKThat is right. There's been good, and there's been bad. So, again, the main thing that undergirds this entire conversation is this issue of affordability. Can artists afford to live and work here, and can arts organizations -- particularly very small ones -- afford space for rent in this city? And then the other big question is, who gets to pick grant recipients for this money? Who's in charge of selecting the panels and the board members who get to decide who is worthy of arts funding, and who isn't?
LEFRAKBelow that, there's been some minor dust-ups. For example, last fall, the Arts Commission slipped in this amendment to the agreement that grant recipients would have to sign to receive funds, and it would have banned -- I'm quoting, here -- “lewd, lascivious, vulgar or overtly political work.” And a lot of people got very angry about that, very quickly. It sounded like censorship, and it was scrapped within a week. But, you know, a lot of artists and arts leaders still have that in the back of their minds, and are still a little worried about what that could mean in the future.
LEFRAKAnd then the one other big thing that's been happening this past year, the city, in April, introduced this cultural plan, this huge, 224-page document that outlines the city's cultural economy, and also outlines all these different ways that the city can support it. And, you know, there's a lot of benefits to outlining all of those in a plan. Not every city has a cultural plan. But some arts leaders -- particularly leaders of non-profits -- were very worried, because they saw that the cultural plan puts an emphasis on loans, rather than grants. And no one here is asking for a loan.
NNAMDIVictoria Murray Baatin, Angie Gates -- the director of the Office of Cable Television, Film, Music and Entertainment -- mentioned that she hopes this office will, quoting here, "allow us to expand our reach in the creative community.” How would you like to see this new office engage with local artists when it comes to making policy and funding decisions, especially if the office is trying to expand its reach to people in the arts and culture industry?
BAATINWell, I think that it's a natural solution and a natural place for such an expansion to want to occur. It appears that this administration wants to serve the creative economy and the creative industries, broadly. One of the things that we have here in the District of Columbia is that -- let me back up a little bit and say that Americans for the Arts produces a number of reports, among these is the Cultural Industries Reports. And what those reports tell us is that in a city like ours, in Washington, D.C., we have the highest density of people who are working in the creative industries. And it's high time that there will be, now, an arm within the government to coordinate that work. When we talk about how many people, we're talking about there are 2,500 arts-related business that employ about 25,000 people in the city alone.
BAATINLet's put that into perspective. It's just sort of, like, numbers. That's 5 percent of the local businesses here in the District of Columbia. So, that's a huge swath of people to be serving. And, from a policy perspective, I do think that it's important to have both the Arts and Humanities Commission that is focusing on the arts and the humanities, but then more broadly, again, this Office of Creative Affairs that can take in the totality of the creative industries and understand each of these segments. Because it's really important to note that while we have all of these segments, not all of them have the same economic force, and not all of them have the same economic model. And so, from a policy perspective, when we talk about those microloans, I think it's a very useful tool, a very useful instrument for makers, for example, maybe not so much a useful tool for a nonprofit arts and cultural organization. So, just figuring out what tools are in the tool chest, and applying them in an appropriate way for all of the segments within the creative economy that we have represented here.
NNAMDIFrom a policy perspective, that obviously makes sense to you. But, Mikaela, let's talk from the politics perspective. Because you spoke earlier with Phil Mendelson, who is the chair of the D.C. Council, and he has criticized the very creation of this new office. Quoting from Kriston Capps' piece in Washington City Paper, Phil Mendelson said: “It's not in the best interest of the public or the arts community for the mayor to undermine the Commission on Arts and Humanities. Instead of setting up her own office, she should work with the community and make it stronger." He then goes on to say, "Launching a new office of Creative Affairs to compete with the Independent Arts Commission will be counterproductive and wasteful of public dollars.”
NNAMDISo, obviously, he doesn't see it the same way Victoria does, in terms of policy. What's going on, here?
LEFRAKThat's right. He has some feels about it. And he called the mayor, in that statement, he said that she was being very stubborn about this issue. And I think those strong feelings, probably, on both ends, they go back months. The mayor and the D.C. Council have really been having this internal struggle about control over arts funding. They've had this internal battle about where funding for the Commission on Arts and Humanities should come from, whether it should come from a dedicated sales tax, as Phil Mendelson supports, or, you know, from the budget. So, this is something that they've really been butting heads over for a while. What I understand from Chairman Mendelson is that, you know, this is just the mayor's kind of -- maybe retaliation is too strong of a word, but her kind of way to push back against the Council's efforts to make the Commission on Arts and Humanities more independent and separate from that executive office.
LEFRAKSo, I think -- I don't know. We'll see what happens. We should emphasize that we have no idea what the budget for this office is going to be, how many people are going to work there, any of that.
NNAMDII was about to say, currently, Victoria, how is the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities funded?
BAATINSo, it has changed, over the years. Sometimes, it has been an appropriation, a mayoral appropriation. This mayor has been quite generous with that appropriation. It's fluctuated over the years. And it's currently set to be .3 percent of the city's sales tax, of the 6 percent sales tax. So, that's how the Commission is to be funded.
LEFRAKAnd it's a dedicated funding.
BAATINA dedicated funding stream for that. So, that number won't be in such fluctuation from year to year, but that it could be -- assuming that, you know, the economy is good, sales are good -- that tax revenue will be appropriated to the Commission on the Arts and Humanities.
NNAMDIAnd has the mayor indicated how the Creative Affairs Office will be funded?
BAATINI don't have any intel or information on that.
LEFRAKAll I know is that it will come out of the budget for the Office of Film, Cable, Television, Media, Entertainment -- all those nouns.
NNAMDIWhich would tend to assume that that agency's budget will have to be expanded in order to accommodate them.
LEFRAKPotentially, in the future. I mean, the budget process is over for this fiscal year. But maybe, you know, a year from now, that could change.
BAATINAnd I want to say that, you know, I would frame it in this way, in terms of almost being an embarrassment of riches. You know, we like to -- I'm theater maker, so I'm into the drama. I understand drama, and you've got to have opposing sides, and conflicts with the Council and the mayor, the Democrats and Republicans, or the Autobots and Decepticons. I mean, however you want to frame it in terms of bringing that tension. But, really, this is a wonderful thing. We are in an enviable place, you know, as compared to our peers across the country.
NNAMDIOnce we can get the differences between the mayor and Council worked out.
BAATINOnce we get the differences worked out. And the devil lives in the details.
NNAMDIKriston Capps reported for Washington City Paper that Terrie Rouse-Rosario has make some new hires on her way out that have ruffled some feathers at the D.C. Arts Commission. Mikaela, what's going on there?
LEFRAKYes. So, Terrie Rouse-Rosario, she resigned a couple of weeks ago. That's effective September 30th. And she has -- I was just looking at -- she provided Phil Mendelson with a full list of her hires from this whole year, and it looks like she made five new hires in the past, I think, three weeks, some with six-figure salaries. You know, I spoke to her about it. She said, you know, they were positions that she thought were useful, and it was perfectly in her right to make these hires. I think Chairman Mendelson sees it as a way to kind of sneak in some -- or some folks see it as a way to kind of sneak in these hires before she's on her way out. And it does look like there's also been a pretty high turnover at the Commission of Arts and Humanities. Chairman Mendelson told me that there's been 30 percent turnover in the past year, which is higher than one would hope for in an agency such as that.
NNAMDIWith the announcement of the new Creative Affairs Office, Mayor Bowser also mentioned that she's bringing back the Mayor's Arts Awards, which Terrie Rouse-Rosario had already canceled for this year. Give us the details.
LEFRAKThey're back. So, yes. The Mayor's Arts Awards, this annual awards program. There's usually a big party. And when they were announced, they were supposed to be in October, but then Director Rouse-Rosario resigned, she said that they effectively were canceled. And they're overseen by the Arts Commission. A panel selects the winners. And, now, the mayor said that -- you know, when she announced that she was creating this Creative Affairs Office, she announced that the awards are back, and they will be managed by the Creative Affairs Office. So, they will be held in November. There will be a big gala. And, you know, it's a great way to celebrate the arts. It's also now going to be under the mayor's purview. You know, that will be something that she can put her stamp on directly, now.
NNAMDIVictoria, what do you say to people who say, look, why does the Creative Affairs Office need a full department to service as a liaison with the D.C. Commission on the Arts? A liaison could be just, like, one person.
BAATINMm-hmm. I appreciate that question, and I sort of contemplated it and thought of it, you know, just deeply in terms of why we need a department. And, again, my hope is that it's because the vision is that it will expand to something much larger to be able to serve the creative economy much more robustly. I mean, there are so many, you know, plans, and so on and so forth. You were talking about the mayor's Arts Awards, for example. I mean, it is decidedly, and by its name, the Mayor's Arts Awards. So, it's always been under the purview of the mayor, and a celebration to that end. But I will say that, you know, there are certain statutory limitations that are outlined in the Commission’s enabling legislation that really specifically sets it up to serve those that are in the arts and humanities. And it goes back to the establishment of the Federal Arts and Humanities Act in 1965, where there was a national movement across the country to be setting up these types of things. And, so, from about '65 to, let's say, '71, they were popping up all over.
BAATINOurs came online in '69. So, I think we're celebrating our 50th anniversary right now. And the creative affairs, creative industries, was not a part of the lexicon, was not a part of the dialogue at that time. And so, yes, we do need to protect the arts and humanities, and that its own special thing. But as we have this expansion, I do think the Creative Affairs Office will help support that.
NNAMDIWell, we got an email from Elaine, who says: sounds like the mayor's new office will have more of her connections to the for-profit world. Any indications of that, at all?
BAATINI don't know the answer to that. But I think that as, you know, sort of given that litany of things that would fall under the creative economy, certainly for-profit businesses do fall under that. And so it would stand to reason that that could be a part of some segments that are being served.
LEFRAKAnd I should note that this month is the mayor's 202Creates campaign. As Kriston noted in the City Paper, it's a very hashtag-friendly campaign, but it kicked off last Thursday. And that's a celebration of D.C.'s arts industries, and also includes culinary arts, cosmetology, fashion, all of those things.
BAATINMakeup design, I'm sure.
LEFRAKYeah. So, that's a way that the mayor wants to transform what arts means.
NNAMDIThat's about all the time we have. Victoria Murray Baatin is the associate artistic director at Mosaic Theater, a member of the Theater Washington's Board of Governors, and chair of the Policy Committee for Ward 4, Councilmember Brandon Todd's Arts, Humanities and Creative Economy Committee, in addition to being an eternal optimist. Thank you very much for joining us.
LEFRAKMikaela Lefrak is WAMU's Arts and Culture reporter, and the host of the “What's with Washington” podcast. Mikaela, always a pleasure.
NNAMDIThis conversation about the new D.C. Creative Affairs Office was produced by Cydney Grannan. Our look at the pet sales in Maryland was produced by Julie Depenbrock. Tomorrow, two dozen cases of serious lung illnesses being tied to vaping. We'll hear from local health officials about their heightened concern. And as the lack of affordable housing in the region continues to make headlines, we have the findings of a new report that says the solution lies with more than policymaking by local governments. That's all tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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