Free Speech in Civil Society graphic

DC arts agency issues, then quickly retracts, restriction on artistic expression – November 2018

Washington, DC

After having awarded contracts to various artists in the nation’s capital, the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities (DCCAH) emailed a final amendment to all contracted artists, requesting they sign onto a provision that would allow their funding to be pulled in case their artwork violated standards of violence, politicization, or obscenity.

Key Players

The DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities provides grants, professional opportunities, education enrichment, and other programs and services to individuals and nonprofit organizations in Washington, DC.

Angie Gates is the DCCAH’s interim executive director. She signed a contract amendment that many artists criticized as infringing upon free expression.

Muriel Bowser is mayor of Washington, DC, a position she has held since 2015. The DCCAH receives its funding from the DC city government, and is ultimately administered by Bowser. Shortly after hearing about the proposed amendment, she had it rescinded and issued a statement in support of artistic expression.

Further Details

On Nov. 5, 2018, DCCAH emailed all grantees that it would be adding an amendment with new stipulations to their awards. According to The Washington Post, the new regulations would require artists to avoid producing artwork that could be viewed as lewd, lascivious, vulgar, and overtly political or violent.

The DC arts community, backed by the National Coalition Against Censorship and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), protested the restriction, prompting DC City Councilmembers to become involved and speak out against the proposed changes.

ACLU lawyer Deepak Gupta explained to the Washington City Paper that the amendment clearly violated the artists’ constitutional rights, because under its terms, the commission would have the sole authority to decide whether artwork should be censored, which could have a chilling effect on artists’ freedom of expression.

Though the amendment was signed by DCCAH’s Interim Executive Director Angie Gates, other members of the commission indicated in an email obtained by the City Paper that “commissioners weren’t made aware of this before it was sent out to the grantees.” The Mayor’s Office was similarly eager to distance itself from the amendment, and immediately moved to rescind it. DCCAH Chief of External Affairs Jeffrey Scott told the City Paper: “The Bowser Administration stands firmly behind our shared DC Values and will always strive to uphold our mission of service to the District and its residents. The [DCCAH] believes deeply in the right to freedom of expression and would never seek to violate that right by censoring the work of any grantee.”

According to the City Paper, some believe the amendment was a reaction to work produced a month earlier by local artist Marta Pérez-Garcia, who received $50,000 from the DCCAH for her installation for the DC Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Her piece, which was displayed in a municipal center, included cloth dolls made by survivors of abuse that were suspended in a manner that upset at least one visitor, because this seemed to depict a lynching.

Outcome

Following backlash, DC Mayor Bowser rescinds DCCAH contract amendment that would have allowed censorship

Five days after artists were alerted to the new clause in their contracts, Mayor Bowser rescinded the amendment that would have allowed DCCAH to pull funding from projects it deemed “lewd, lascivious, vulgar, overtly political, or excessively violent” or that constituted sexual harassment or were, in any other way, “illegal.” A bill is under review by the DC City Council that would change the role of the commission, turning it into an advisory body rather than an arts funder.

In a statement to the Post, Peter Nesbett, executive director of the Washington Project for the Arts, said, “Now we have to make sure that the amendment is truly rescinded, that artists and organizations that signed it are not bound by its restrictive conditions.”

External References

Mayor Bowser to withdraw censorship amendment from DC arts grant.

After outcry, DC commission backs down on censoring art.

Prepared by Gustav Honl-Stuenkel ‘20

Uploaded to tracker: December 13, 2018