Arts Desk

Judith Terra Sworn in as Chair of D.C. Arts Commission

Judith Terra, the philanthropist and key fundraiser for the current and last mayor, was sworn in yesterday as the new chair of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. Terra, who has been credited with helping nudge then-Council Chairman Vince Gray into last year’s mayoral race, replaces Anne Ashmore-Hudson, who held the position from 2008 to 2011.

Terra is the widow of Daniel J. Terra, a Republican fundraiser who served as the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Cultural Affairs, a one-time-only position created for him by the Reagan administration. After her husband died in 1996, Terra created a stir when she tried to move the Terra family’s museum in Chicago to Washington. The relocation was thwarted, though the collection was consolidated with the Art Institute of Chicago after the Terra Museum finally closed in 2004. (The Terra family also operates the Musée d’Art Américain in Giverny, France.)

As the head of the arts commission, Terra is charged with parceling out one of the smallest city arts budgets in years. The budget passed by the council last week allocates $3.92 million in local funds to the commission. The agency is tentatively set to receive another $5 million from the federal government through the transfer of the National Capital Arts and Cultural Affairs grant program, but councilmembers and leaders of the city’s artistic community are doubtful that will happen.

“We’re in a situation where funds are being cut,” says Marquis Perkins, a spokesman for DCCAH. Terra is “making her No. 1 goal to make the creative economy grow.”

In a statement released earlier today, Terra says that under her, DCCAH will do “what we humanly can to create jobs, educational opportunities, fresh ideas, and a new spirit of enthusiasm for the District’s creative economy.” With government money tight, Perkins says the commission is considering other sources of funding including private foundations, though he would not name specifics.

Long a fixture of national Republican politics, Terra’s rise in D.C.’s mayoral affairs came after she moved from Georgetown to a Crestwood mansion called White Oak in 2004. At a neighborhood party, she met her Ward 4 councilman, a rising star named Adrian Fenty. In an August 2005 Washington City Paper profile, Terra said she believed Fenty “can be a good leader.” Terra joined the Commission on the Arts and Humanities in 2007 after Fenty was sworn in.

It’s still not entirely clear why Terra switched sides last year, but shortly after a dinner with her, Virginia Williams (mother of former mayor Anthony A. Williams), and a few political consultants at Il Canale in Georgetown in February 2010, the now-mayor jumped in the race. Terra told The Georgetowner last September that Gray is “a prince of a man.”

But funding cuts and the kiboshed proposal to implement a 6 percent sales tax on tickets to live performances have done little to endear Gray to the artistic community six months into his mayoralty. Perkins says Terra’s appointment could sway hearts and minds. “It’s good that there’s somebody that close to the mayor to be that voice for the arts community,” he says. “Hopefully we can change some of his perceptions on the importance of the arts in the city and put him in a better light.”

Photograph by Darrow Montgomery

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