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FY2024 Budget Oversight Hearing Statement of Reggie Van Lee

Thursday, March 30, 2023

[This statement was provided by Reggie Van Lee for the FY2024 Budget Oversight Hearing on March 30, 2023]

Good morning, Chair Mendelson and Councilmembers.

My name is Reggie Van Lee, Chair of the Commission on the Arts and Humanities. I am an African American man and I am wearing a dark suit. Thank you for the opportunity to testify on the Fiscal Year 2024 proposed budget for the Commission on the Arts and Humanities. On behalf of Interim Director David Markey and myself, we acknowledge that we are on the ancestral homelands of the Nacotchtank, Anacostan and Piscataway peoples, the first residents of what would become the District of Columbia. Before I proceed, I want to express my sincere appreciation to the Chairperson and the rest of the Council for passing, and the Mayor for enacting, the Commission on the Arts and Humanities Acting Executive Director Emergency Amendment act. With the authority this legislation has provided to the Commission, our Executive Director nominee, Aaron Myers, will be in our office full-time acting exec beginning April 10. I am hopeful that the permanent version of this Legislation will be enacted as well, enabling future Commissions to appropriately manage transitions in agency leadership.

In considering the FY23 budget for the Arts Commission, I want to reflect on one of our core constituencies: artists. Artists are some of the most resilient, resourceful, and fearless people in the world; the pandemic proved that. As we know, recent economic forecasts portend a decline in revenue for the District in the coming years, which is reflected in this proposed budget. The arts and cultural sector was among the hardest hit economically by the pandemic, and as predicted, it is one of the slowest sectors to recover. In spite of this, the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis reports that in 2021 arts and cultural production accounts for over $13 million and 9.0% of the District of Columbia’s economy, contributing 54,961 jobs. These numbers are due in no small part to this government’s investments in the arts and cultural sector through the Commission’s grant programs. I believe it is incumbent upon us, as a government, to continue to support the recovery of the arts and cultural community. Any reduction or loss of support to this sector would have a ripple effect throughout all other industries in the District and would be a severe detriment to our residents.

The budget for the Commission on the Arts and Humanities Included in the Mayor’s Fiscal Year 2024 budget proposal is over fifty million dollars—the largest in the agency’s history. As you know, Chairperson, the Council passed legislation that established a dedicated tax—in this case a percentage of the sales tax—to become the primary source of revenue for the commission, thereby eliminating appropriations funding for the agency. Since dedicated tax funding began in FY 2019, we have seen the agency’s budget increase annually. Throughout the pandemic, the Commission understood that sales tax revenues could decline, reducing the funding available for our budget and impacting the number of grants and the amount of funding we would be able to award. Thankfully, that has not been the case.

Some may ask if the Arts Commission really needs fifty million dollars to serve its mission and purpose—a question that could be asked of any government agency. Over eighty percent of our annual budget goes out the door as grant awards to DC-resident artists and nonprofit organizations. As the Commission’s budget has grown, we have Subsequently increased the amount of many of our grants as well as increasing the number of grants awarded, and the number of first-time grantees. It’s clear that these grants are needed, and for many Individual artists and smaller organizations, these grants are critical. The Commission’s budget is therefore an investment in the quality of life and economic activity for the district, providing both direct and indirect benefits to all residents.

As always, we are committed to the thoughtful and responsible handling of our budget, guided by the principal of creating practices, behaviors and a culture of fair and equitable processes, to ensure robust, varied, and fully accessible resources to the broad community. In order to expand our framework of equity and access, I propose that a private, 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization be established to act as a kind of foundation for the Commission. This is an idea that I’ve discussed with you, Chairperson, and with several other Councilmembers as well; and it’s an idea that is not without precedent. Ten other state arts agencies have associated cultural trusts or foundations, as do several District government agencies, such as the DC Public Library Foundation and the DC Public Education Fund, for example.

We believe that the establishment of such a foundation would create a mechanism by which funds could be made available for arts and cultural organizations that may not have a 501(c)(3) or may lack the resources to effectively fundraise for themselves. Through the foundation, we aim to reach those groups the Commission, as a government agency bound by certain regulations, has been unable to effectively reach; again, this is a matter of equity and access. We also envision such a foundation as being able to provide support for some of the agency’s programs and special events, which in turn would free up our staff and allow them to be of better service to our constituents. An example of such programmatic support involves the future of the District’s nighttime arts festival, Art All Night, which began in 2011 as a project of Shaw Main Streets with grant funding from the commission and is now a citywide event. Last year’s Art All Night featured 1,414 artists at 277 different locations throughout the District welcoming over 180,000 attendees, and I commend the great work of our festival partners over the years: the Department of Small and Local Business Development, DC Public Library, and the participating main streets organizations and business improvement districts.

We believe the time is right to take art all night to the next level by taking inspiration from well-known cultural events like Art Basel to elevate the programming and garner regional, national, and eventually international attention. As it currently exists, the festival is one project among many that the partnering organizations work on over the course of a year. A Commission foundation could take on the bulk of the work of planning and executing the festival, as well as soliciting additional private financial support. The dedicated focus and resources a foundation could bring to Art All Night is what is needed for it to become a truly signature event, not unlike the National Cherry Blossom Festival. As a result, the District would likely benefit economically with increased tourism. And, our artistic community will have a platform with which to showcase and even sell their work to a global audience, potentially. Such a foundation would be completely separate from the Commission and would have its own board and staff. Our understanding is that legislation would be required For this to happen, and so I would respectfully request the Council’s assistance and collaboration to develop and pass such a bill.

Chairperson Mendelson, Councilmembers: you have proven to be stalwart supporters of the arts, with a deep understanding of the benefits they bring, and I am particularly grateful for that. I look forward to continuing the conversation on public funding of the arts in the District of Columbia.

Thank you.