After six months with Acrimony, Washington, DC’s Cultural Commission gets a progressive shakeup with major consequences

In an eleven-hour twist of a case that has raged the art community in Washington, DC since last spring, two nominees for the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities (DCCAH), who had pushed for racialism in their grants, were finally confirmed on the threshold to the November 3 deadline to do so.

Earlier this week, Cora Masters Barry and Natalie Hopkinson greeted dozens of activists who met on U Street to demand that the Washington DC Council confirm their nominations to the city’s Arts Commission, where they have power over a $ 40 million budget. However, after the President of the Legislative Assembly refused to hold a hearing on their nominations, it called for an urgent proposal the night before to force a vote among the legislators, which saved their positions in the Commission.

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

Over the past six months, Barry and Hopkinson have received backlash for pressuring the DCCAH to change its grant formula in support of a more racially diverse group of cultural groups. The adjustments were unanimously passed earlier this year, but disrupted several major art organizations in Washington, which saw their grants fall by more than 60 percent. Phil Mendelson, chairman of the DC Council, sided with the institutions in expressing dismay at the size of the cuts, subsequently blocking activists’ confirmation by rejecting a vote.

DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson makes remarks as Mayor Muriel Bowser presents his 2021 budget for the fiscal year for Washington City Council, DC Photo: Bill O’Leary / The Washington Post via Getty Images.

The women waited nearly six months for a hearing, and Mendelson often referred to a “mess” in the commission without calling them by name. His rhetoric soured further over the weekend as the confirmation deadline approached. “Unfortunately, many members of the commission have complained to me about their division,” Mendelson said in a statement on Oct. 31, listing a number of unwritten insults against the women he claimed to have heard from other officials. “Cora Barry and Natalie Hopkinson have antagonized and alienated their colleagues and not in a good way.”

Despite Mendelson’s position, the content of the chairman’s statement still came as a shock to Barry and Hopkinson. “He decided to go the character assassination,” Hopkinson said before the vote. “It is a sad and demoralizing statement that votes for inclusion can be expelled and rejected.”

Mayor Muriel Bowser nominated the two women for the commission in 2019 during a break in a long-running feud between herself and the district legislature over who controls DCCAH. As the political annoyance has risen again, accusations of camaraderie and racism have also come against the organization, which has struggled to establish its independence while reviewing four CEOs since 2018.

Earlier this year, business consultant Reginald Van Lee became chairman of the commission; meanwhile, Hopkinson and Barry have been awaiting their Council hearing. 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.

“As far as I know, there has been no disruptive, divisive or otherwise unprofessional conduct among any of the commissioners,” Van Lee wrote in an email to councilors over the weekend, saying Mendelson’s second accusation over the weekend about , that Barry violated ethics and conflict of interest laws when she voted for a grant to her own organization was inaccurate because the panel blindly selects applicants.

The DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities oversees a budget of about $ 40 million to support major institutions and public art initiatives, such as 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 and criticized the DC Council during a Nov. 1 hearing press conference where she described Mendelson’s recent complaints as sexist.

Finally, on Monday, Councilman Robert White – who recently announced a candidacy for mayor next year – introduced an emergency law to approve Barry and Hopkinson’s nominations and effectively override Mendelson’s authority. On Wednesday, the emergency bill went through the Legislative Assembly, and all council members except Mendelson voted to confirm the women to their seats on the commission.

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

Hopkinson said she was pleased councilors like White took action on her behalf. “It was really validating,” she told Artnet News. “I will continue to push these issues of inclusion and justice in the art world.”

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