Considering Appropriateness of Funding Set-Aside Practices

Washington Post reported an interesting development in the Washington, D.C. arts and cultural environment last week. The D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities asked the D.C. Council to end the practice of setting aside approximately $7 million in guaranteed funding to a group of established city arts organizations.

That money, which averaged a bit more than $7 million a year, now goes into a general fund of more than $33 million — and anyone can compete for a piece of it. The more money there is at a community level, the more likely some of the city’s grass-roots talent will be discovered.

To their credit, the big-time beneficiaries of the old set-aside did not fight the change. Rather, they explained the economic rationale for bypassing the arts commission and lobbying the D.C. Council to give them special dispensation. They acknowledged that the funding program may have unintentionally added to arts funding disparities — with residents living east of the Anacostia River getting far less than Whites in more-affluent areas.

The article mentions this was a particularly productive development for the Commission on the Arts and Humanities which had been viewed as so dysfunctional over the past year, members of the DC Council overseeing the commission were considering whether it should be dissolved.

The article raises a good issue in raising awareness of set aside programs where many of the most affluent and prestigious arts organizations in a municipality or state are guaranteed a certain level of funding while all other arts organizations are forced to compete for the remaining funds. This isn’t on the case in the US, back in March I cited a work that discussed how powerful arts organizations were making an end run around the Australian Council for the Arts to secure their funding directly from the government.

I’d be interested to know what economic rationale the D.C. arts organizations cited to justify circumventing the arts commission and lobbying the DC Council directly. In any case, I suspect we may see more of these set aside arrangements come under scrutiny as possibly perpetuating  funding disparities within the greater community.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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