Arts Desk

D.C. Arts Commission Overhauls Grant Programs

D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities Chairwoman Judith Terra

At Arena Stage this morning, the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities introduced its grant program for the 2012 fiscal year to several hundred members of Washington's artistic community—or, as most of the speakers called it, the city's "creative economy." Also making an introduction to the crowd was Judith Terrawho was sworn in as the DCCAH's new chairwoman last month.

Ayris Scales, the commission's interim director, did most of the talking, as DCCAH representatives outlined several new revisions to the grant program and its application process. Perhaps most surprising to the audience, which spanned theaters, dance troupes, museums, and book circles, was the consolidation of several grant categories. The commission has combined its Young Artists Program and Artists Fellowship Program into a new award called Individual Artist Grants; the City Arts Projects and Festivals DC grants for organizations are now Festivals and City Arts Projects; and grants for artistic endeavors focusing on the elderly, folk art, hip-hop, or produced by individuals and groups with small operating budgets were combined to form the Community Arts Grants.

By merging several categories, the DCCAH reduced the number of types of awards it distributes from 16 to 9, an amount Scales said would be easier to administrate.

Commission staffers told the crowd they evaluated several factors when overhauling the structure of the city's arts grants, though the economy and recent levels of arts funding loomed largest. Though $3.92 million for arts grants in the District's 2012 budget is the lowest in many years and the fate of a proposed $5 million transfer of federal funds to the DCCAH is still unclear, the city officials addressing Arena Stage's main lobby mustered the sunniest face they could. Terra, who spoke briefly before leaving, mentioned that she and Shakespeare Theatre Company Artistic Director Michael Kahn estimated in 2005 that spending on the arts injected $1.5 billion into the local economy.

More current was the enthusiasm of Victor Hoskins, the deputy mayor for planning and economic development. Hoskins, whose office oversees the DCCAH, began his short remarks by "[thanking] the mayor for his commitment to the arts," which elicited a few audible sighs and snickers from the assembled artistic community, which at times has not been shy about expressing its displeasure with some of Mayor Vince Gray's initiatives.

"The goal will be simple," Terra said at the end of her statement. "Argue for greater resources and develop the creative economy."

It fell to DCCAH staffers Moshe Adams and Carlyn Madden to explain how the current resources will be broken down. Though grant funding is tighter this year, the maximum award has been increased for the new grant categories as well as several continuing ones. The new Individual Artist Grants top out at $5,000, up from $3,000 in the discontinued Young Artist Program; Festival and City Arts Grants can be as much as $50,000, up from $30,000; and the Community Arts Grants can be as much as $10,000, several times the maximums of its predecessor categories. The Grants-in-Aid program, which supports arts organizations' operational budgets, will now be capped at $50,000, up from last year's ceiling of $22,800.

Adams and Madden also previewed the commission's new online application system, which will be managed by ZoomGrants, a Colorado-based company that hosts grant applications for municipalities and foundations in the United States and Canada. DCCAH will no longer accept paper applications, a relief to the prospective grantees who were used to an old manual system that required as many as 10 photocopies of each required document.

"The new structure is in line with best practices" used by other states' and cities' arts commissions, Scales said. Still, between fewer categories with higher limits, reduced local funding, and federal funding uncertain, the commission expects to dole out fewer grants in 2012 than it did for 2011. (It awarded 300 last year, with many organizations receiving multiple grants.) If there is a silver lining in more competitive grants, Scales said, it's that the commission might be able to meet the entire requests of more applications.

"If you're requesting $30,000 and we only give you $5,000, what effect are we really having? Where do you get the other $25,000?" she said.

And though funding for grants is down in fiscal 2012, DCCAH's capital budget for civic art installations and similar projects was increased to $2.7 million, double its 2011 level. Meanwhile, no one at the event this morning made any mention of the White House's proposal to transfer $5 million from the U.S. Commission on Fine Arts' National Capital Arts and Cultural Affairs program to District control. Members of the city's arts community have been skeptical that the transfer will in fact happen, and Scales said she did not know if the transfer will survive the ongoing negotiations over the federal budget as the Aug. 2 deadline to raise the debt ceiling looms.

"We still have no idea," she said.

Grant Program Transitions (Source: D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities)

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