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Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities


In 1965, Congress passed the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act, which created the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts. That same legislation also mandated that each state government would create their own arts agency, and on November 29, 1968, the Government of the District of Columbia established the DC Commission on the Arts with the purpose to “encourage the development of programs which promote progress in the arts.” The first chairman and executive director were appointed in 1969. 

In the 70s, things started to pick up for the Commission. It started to receive more funds from the National Endowment for the Arts, allowing the commission to give out more grants to local DC artists. In 1971, it started an Artist in Residency program, and in 1974, following the District’s Home Rule Act of 1973, the name was changed from DC Commission on the Arts to DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities (CAH). Roughly $200,000 was given to artists and organizations each year during this decade. Also during this time, in 1978, local businesses started to donate money to CAH, which was then distributed to arts organizations.

The 80s was a big decade for CAH. The agency saw a steady increase in budgets, grant recipients, and it was the beginning of many programs which are still in effect today. Such programs included the Larry Neal Writers’ Awards, the Mayor’s Arts Awards, and CAH’s public art program, DC Creates! Nearly $1.5 million was awarded to local artists from 1980-1989. During this era, Peggy Cooper Cafritz was chairman of the commission. Decades later, she went on to receive the Lifetime Achievement award from the Mayor’s Awards. 

During the 90s, more grant programs were established, making the awards more tailored to specific needs. These grants were given names such as the Arts Education Projects, City Arts Projects, and Grants in Aid. These grant opportunities are still the types of grants that artists and organizations can apply to today. It was during this time, in the 90s, that hundreds of grants were given to artists and organizations each year. In fact, in 1997 over a million dollars was distributed to local grant recipients. Charles Stephenson served as chairman during the later segment of this decade. He is well known for his contributions to Go-Go music in DC.

This decade brought in much revenue for the CAH through public art fundraisers such as Party Animals and Pandamania. Many new programs were also added in this era. These programs included Poet in Progress, Poetry Out Loud, and Murals DC. In 2009, close to nine million dollars was awarded to artists and organizations. During this decade, the CAH began to offer funds to help District arts and cultural organizations improve, expand or renovate their facilities. 

This decade saw a drastic increase of award money granted from the start of the decade to the end. In 2010, $4.1 million was awarded, and by 2016, $9.1 million was given to artists and organizations of DC. The biggest increase was seen in 2013, when it awarded 5 million more dollars than the previous year. Many successful programs were also added and are ongoing in this time period, such as 202Creates. In addition to new programs, many new grant opportunities were started as well. Such opportunities focused on heritage, buildings, youth employment, events, festivals, field trips and much more. As CAH approaches its 50th anniversary in November 2018, the agency will do so with the largest budget in its history, a testament to the city's creative professionals and the tremendous support of Mayor Muriel Bowser.