« Previous | Culture Monster Home | Next »

Texas senator warns Obama against 'politicization of the NEA'*

September 10, 2009 |  4:00 pm

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) issued an open letter Wednesday asking President Obama to "take the necessary steps to ensure that the NEA and the American arts community it supports remain independent from political manipulation by the White House."

SenJohnCornyn Cornyn's letter followed a blogger's critical report about a telephone conference last month in which the National Endowment for the Arts combined with the White House Office of Public Engagement to enlist artists on behalf of the administration's "United We Serve" volunteer service initiative.

Posting the letter on his official website, Cornyn said that "steering the arts community toward a pro-Administration political message" would violate the NEA's nonpartisan mandate. The endowment's main purpose is disbursing federal grants to nonprofit arts organizations.

Cornyn cautioned that NEA involvement in recruiting artists for a presidential initiative could suggest that "NEA grant opportunities ... may be tied to artists' willingness to use their creative talents to advance your administration's policies." He added: "this episode appears to merit congressional hearings and sustained oversight."

Responding by e-mail Wednesday, White House spokesman Shin Inouye said the Aug. 10 teleconference "was not meant to promote any legislative agenda -- it was a discussion on the United We Serve effort and how all Americans can participate."

The NEA issued a statement saying that it took part in the conference to help inform arts organizations about opportunities to sponsor volunteer service projects themselves, or have their members take part in other volunteer efforts. "This call was not a means to promote any legislative agenda, and any suggestions to that end are simply false," the statement said. "The NEA regularly does outreach to various organizations to inform them of the work we are doing and the resources available to them."

Cornyn said his concerns rose from an Aug. 25 posting on the Big Hollywood blog by Patrick Courrielche, who owns an L.A. marketing and entertainment company. Courrielche wrote that he was invited by the NEA to take part in the conference call.

NEALogo  The invitation, Courrielche wrote, said the meeting's agenda was for "a group of artists, producers, promoters, organizers, influencers, marketers, taste-makers, leaders or just plain cool people to join together and work together to promote a more civicly engaged America and celebrate how the arts can be used for a positive change," and "to help lay a new foundation for growth, focusing on core areas of the recovery agenda -- health care, energy and environment, safety and security, education, community renewal."

According to Courrielche, Yosi Sergant, who is listed on the NEA's website as communications director, was among those in charge of the teleconference. During the discussion, Courrielche said, the group of about 75 invitees was congratulated for having "played a key role in the election and now Obama was putting out the call of service to help create change."

Sergant did not return phone calls or an e-mailed request for comment on Wednesday and Thursday. Sally Gifford, a spokeswoman for the NEA, said Thursday that Sergant is a staff member, but not the communications director. Asked whether he had been demoted in connection with the controversy over the teleconference, Gifford said she couldn't comment on "personnel matters."

According to a September 2008 story in the L.A. Weekly, Sergant was instrumental in organizing and publicizing artist Shepard Fairey's "Obama Hope" poster campaign during the presidential election.

Lee Rosenbaum, who blogs about visual arts as CultureGrrl, also reported her misgivings as she listened in on a second White House teleconference, Aug. 27, in which arts folk were asked to help with the United We Serve initiative. In that instance, Rosenbaum said, an official from the White House Office of Public Engagement presided and noted that representatives from the NEA and the National Endowment for the Humanities who'd been scheduled to participate were unavailable. Rosenbaum wrote that she was "creeped out" by the idea of the government trying to enlist artists for a "political adventure....even though, like many on the call, I supported and (with reservations) still support the agenda of the new president."

Ben Donenberg, an L.A. theater director who serves on the National Council on the Arts, the 15-member panel of presidential appointees that advises the NEA, said it's important for the endowment to avoid the appearance of partisanship, but that Cornyn's letter to Obama smacks of "grandstanding," with a political agenda of its own.

Donenberg, the founder and producing artistic director of Shakespeare Festival/L.A., noted that the NEA has strong safeguards that should lay to rest any concerns that grants could go to arts organizations pushing a political agenda (less than $2 million a year in NEA money, out of an expected grants budget of about $133 million, goes to individual artists, through literary fellowships and $25,000 individual lifetime achievement honors for jazz, opera and folk arts). *Update: An earlier version of this post referred to Donenberg as producing director, rather than producing artistic director of Shakespeare Festival/L.A.

The process, he said, calls for panels of outside experts to review and rank  applicants in each discipline; then it's up to NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman to consider those recommendations and make funding decisions. The chairman's picks are then reviewed by the other members of the National Council on the Arts.

"No funds have been distributed to support anything aligned with any political agenda, and there won't be," Donenberg said.

-- Mike Boehm

Related coverage:

Solis helps kick off United We Serve in L.A.

Photo: Sen. John Cornyn. Credit: Chris Kleponis / Bloomberg News

Comments () | Archives (49)

What does this right wing nut know about art and artists? ALL great artists are liberal you fool. Its the nature of the beast. Right wingers should stick with politics and leave the Arts and Artists alone. Go crawl back in your hole please.

A real artist.

As usual a 'real artist' does not enjoy reality. Wake up and quit sniffing the paint thinner.

The post by Natty Dread serves as proof positive that the NEA must be monitored with the eyes and talons of a raptor. Their funding on tax payers back should be jerked immediately and permanently.

Enough already!!! Enough fear mongering and a lot more problems solving. Had enough already!


I agree with you 100%; libs are the artists. What I do not understand is how liberal people can acre about the enviroment, art, and expression....but support political views that endorse abortion?

Why would you support or believe a person that is evil or selfish enough to kill a child in the womb or support it; stealing his / her chance at being able to express his or hers gifts on the canvas of life?

That is what we Real Catholics call a Grave Moral Evil. If our "Obama" does not care about INNOCENT life; do you really think he cares about all of us?

He has broken EVERY SINGLE campaign promise to date!! Research it; please don't take my word.

"Any country that accepts abortion, is not teaching its people to love, but to use any violence to get what it wants."

"It is a poverty to decide that a child must die so that you may live as you wish."

1.4 million children a year. It is the #1 cause of death for children worldwide!

AND #1 killer of minorities worldwide!

Peace be with you!


I think Natty is missing the point here. If the liberal artist is using (government controlled) tax payers money to promote the art's that is great because that is what it is for. If the artist is using the tax payer money to promote a political agenda then we have a serious conflict of interest. I am sure that if we had the arts promoting the war in Iraq the other side would equally disapprove.

Sen Cornyn knows about this because somebody has to pay for it. This is "public" money that means it is also my money. Why should I give my hard earned money so a bunch of liberal America haters don't have to get real jobs and earn an honest living. Once the left wing takes over the artists will be the first ones crying they have lost their freedom of expression. You liberal's had better watch out what you wish for.

Well "Real Artist", that's all nice and good unless the taxpayers are footing the bill. When the NEA is getting a 100 mil a year from taxpayers it needs to remain non-partisan.

"A real artist" funny.

Well a "real artist" would sign their name.

I am a working artist, making a good living, mentoring up and comming artist AND I am a Libertarian and I could care less the politics of the artist I work with as long as the are real and decient people. "Real Artist" you are making an assumption and you know what they say about people who make ASSumptions!

Mark Cortes

Natty Dread, you are the problem with the world today. Look into your own words to see the mindset of the "right wing nuts" you despise!

Cornyn need to focus on Texas. Cornyn along with Kay Bailety Hutchinson cherry pick issues that are of minimum consequence. The need to focus on core issues: Energy, Economy, Jobs, and Health Insurance. Both representatives will never, ever take a position or champion an issue that may be in conflict with others in the Republican Party. They just don't have a backbone.

Proud to live in Texas where we elect such people because the vast majority here ARE such people. Meanwhile, those with functioning intellects prosper.

Mercy, has this guy nothing better to do? Really?

Where were you, Senator Cornyn, during the eight years of Bush Administration, asleep?

Hey MISC... too chicken to use your real name. More people could use leaders like the Taxans you slighted. Texas has leaders smart enough to live within our means. We have weathered the economic down turn with little pain.

Senator Cornyn is very concerned about politicization, is he? It's amazing to see Republicans being shocked, yes, shocked about things that actually went on when they were still in control. Politicization of the Justice Department, of all the parts of it. Political use of Homeland Security. Well, it makes it easier to predict what outrage they'll be reacting to next. Oh, maybe losing New Orleans because you put a hack in charge.

I have come to the conclusion that ALL republicans are stupid. Joe Wilson leads the pack--followed by his female counterpart--Ms. Alaska

Does this mean Cornyn doesn't want to see Warhol like posters of Sir Allen Stanford and himself golfing together in Antiqua?

Cornyn running for re-election in '08 said of the economy that we were chicken littles waiting for the sky to fall. All as he accepted private jet oversea trips/gifts with the 8 billion dollar thief, Stanford.

The NEA is inherently political; it is subject to the appointments and policy tides of the resident administration. Duh. All these partisan claims of "liberal," "conservative." "libertarian" are merely plug-in salutations; these words have not a bit of meaning in any meaningful sense, other than as vilifications of people you've never spent any time talking with. Think about it, Eagle One: You don't want artists making work that celebrates and encourages the democratic spirit? How about art that, say, only celebrates or encourages religious militantism? Or only art that is totally abstract, with no utilitarian purpose at all besides personal expression? This whole conversation is totally depressing, because it's nothing but entrenched haters on both sides spitting at each other.

Let me gently suggest, Natty Dread, the possibility that not *all* great artists, nor all of any group of people, are liberals (or conservatives or centrists, for that matter). I'm not an artist, but am mostly liberal, and over the decades have had a fair number of artist friends, especially writers and painters. Some of them were quite conservative, politically at least.

As for Senator Cornyn's letter, it so happens I'm a Texan and just finished an e-mail to the Senator about the question of the NEA's conference call. If, as the artist alleges, folks at the NEA called upon the artists to support specific stands regarding the various issues, stands consistent with the President's, then the Senator has a perfectly valid point. And I voted for President Obama, and I don't look back. I still think he's the best thing to come down the pike in a generation -- and I'm a Caucasian Texan who grew up on a small ranch. (From there, my lifeline diverges from most people who started life as I did: lived in Mexico awhile as a kid, and have lived the past quarter century in East Asia.) But in my email to the Senator -- whom I often to take to task, and will continue to do so when I disagree with him -- I told him I support him in this particular instance.

I don't want any White House of whichever party pressuring artists at all. Asking them to urge their fellow citizens to take part in the public discussion is fine; beyond that, I go on alert, the level depending on the circumstances.

I'm not trying to start a fight with you, Natty, just pointing out blanket statements don't always cover the ground.

1 2 3 | ยป


Recommended on Facebook

In Case You Missed It...


Explore the arts: See our interactive venue graphics


Tweets and retweets from L.A. Times staff writers.