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DC arts funding disproportionally disadvantage artists of color

Where opportunity and funding are intrinsically linked, emerging artists of color are shut out from sharing their work when arts funds are directed to large institutions that don’t support community work.

By Caroline Cliona Boyle

Naoko Wowsugi's exhibition Very Sad Lab at Transformer DC. Photo by Caroline Cliona Boyle

In Washington, the city’s thriving creative industry also enables local artists to realize their expression. However, D.C. arts grants favor larger institutions, resulting in a power imbalance that disproportionally disadvantages community initiatives supporting artists of color.

In Washington’s arts scene, where opportunity and funding are intrinsically linked, emerging artists of color are shut out from sharing their work when arts funds are directed to large institutions that don’t support community work. Arts equity funding in Washington came under scrutinty last August, after the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities passed a new funding formula intended to reapportion funds to more local arts organizations.

This really is “the white elephant,” said Naoko Wowsugi, an artist from Japan who has lived in Washington since 2016.

Wowsugi observed the inequity around grant distribution in Washington. After experiencing countless frustrations in applying for individual grants from the DCCAH, Wowsugi noticed a trend around what kind of person ultimately receives the grant.

“I’ve started seeing so many people need empowerment from someone who looks like me, so I suddenly have this wakeup call as an artist of color.”

While Wowsugi does not receive a grant from the DCCAH directly. She receives funding as a American University Fine Arts faculty member. DCCAH-funded gallery spaces including Hamiltonian Artists, the National Gallery and Transformer DC also fund her work.

Deputy Director of the DCCAH David Markey said that artists’ desires to achieve cultural equity is more than understandable. Over the years, a “perception” has existed that the DCCAH’s grant process was not “fair or equitable for many other organizations that didn’t have access to counsel, and therefore didn't really have access to the dollars,” he said.

In August 2021, the DCCAH’s funding formula increased the fund for the General Operating Support grant, an all-encompassing grant that supports the arts, humanities and arts education. This change has the potential to benefit artists of color because there is more flexibility in who can obtain the grant — whether that be an individual artist, a community action group, or a large institution.

“The reason we wanted to do that was to sort of stabilize the community. So, while there are no guarantees, we were using the term ‘flattening the curve,’” Markey said.

Since the change, the DCCAH now allocates 54% of its funding to its GOS grant to support any art institution or artist that collects under $1 million a year. In total, for FY22 grantees, the DCCAH reallocated over $5.3 million from Washington’s largest arts organizations, to smaller art centers and artists.

Victoria Reis, the co-founder of a local arts non-profit Transformer DC, said the DCCAH’s decision dissolves aspects of the grant processes that historically favored larger arts organizations.

“We were incredibly grateful to the commission and the DC Council last year for eliminating the earmarks that had been set in place for years to give millions of D.C. dollars to large cultural institutions,” Reis said.

In 2021, Transformer DC successfully applied for a DCCAH grant. They were among 97 arts organizations with budgets under $1 million that received a general operating service grant totaling $120,000.

One of the core benefits of the budget reallocation is that the commission can use its status to highlight organizations (like Transformer DC) that never got the same recognition as the city’s larger centers of art, Reis said.

Sufficient financial support from the city enables smaller arts non-profits to support local artists of color including Wowsugi, who wrapped up her latest exhibition “Very Sad Lab: The Incubator” at Transformer DC last month.

It’s not that “larger institutions aren't very deserving of support, but they have far more enhanced development infrastructure and staff to go after extensive corporate and individual donor dollars as well as farther reaches to larger foundation gifts,” Reis said.

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