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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)

A Texas Republican wants to end the "politicization of the NEA"?????
This must be bizarro world. I thought Repubs wanted to end the NEA, period.

As usual, the right is trying to hijack the important discourse with minutia - and the ignorant American public is buying it.

The amount for the 2009 NEA budget Obama is requesting is $155 million. Had the NEA been funded at 1979 levels, it would be over $650 million.

The small minds are out in droves - Obama seems to get the kooks to come out of the woodwork.

Why are you who are concerned about Obama's NEA budget or the health reform budget not a bit concerned (or should that be - WERE not a bit concerned) with spending on the war. Or Bush's giveaway to the banks and insurance companies who were in the throes of failure? Why do you accuse Obama of lying when it's been proven that GW lied to us over and over to start a war. And then took away dozens of your civil rights? I heard no voices from the right, then.

Now another of your brethren, Eric, rails about abortion. Hey Eric, do you care that tens of thousands of ADULTS are dying each year not because they don't have health care, but because their health insurance company won't pay for care they are entitled to? 32% of claims in CALIFORNIA alone are denied each year - and we're one of the better states. No, you don't care. If Obama goes out for a bicycle ride at 6:00 AM you can probably tie that into him being a baby killer.

The right wing, the anti-abortionists, and the religious are so hypocritical I could throw up.

You know why I don't care about babies in the womb? Because 50% of them are conceived by small-minded, financially irresponsible people like you and the hypocritical, selfish ignoramuses that are known as conservatives.

To prove my point: If you cared about babies you'd be outraged there are still wars being fought because babies and children are dying in large numbers every day in other countries - and we're killing them. But your sick, perverted mind can somehow twist the facts so that it's OK with you. Walking up to a small child in another country and putting an American weapon to her little head and pulling the trigger until her head explodes like watermelon hitting the pavement at the end of a 20 story drop is fine with you. Having their arms and legs and parents blown off/away by bombs dropped by American planes is just "collateral damage" to you.

More proof you're a hypocrite? You want the government to control abortions but you're screaming at the town halls that you don't want the government to get between you and your doctor! How do I know? I was at a town hall, and I kept my mouth shut and just listened.

The thing that amazes me most about conservative's "concern" over money is that Obama is at least trying to do something for the average, middle class schmuck in this country by curtailing the insurance companies who continue to screw us to the wall - and you're fighting for the insurance company!

What a tool you are.

The agenda of the meeting was 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."

What's so bad about that? It's the Left's equivalent of 'Faith Based' community groups coming together for a 'positive' cause. And haven't 'Faith Based' community associations been taking in the tax dollars too?

Looks like a case of the 'other shoe' - One on the left and the other on the right- Both being... 'footed' by tax dollars.

1. Texas is No. 1 in the nation when it comes to the percentage of its residents who are uninsured.

2. Texas poverty rate is 7th highest in the nation

3. Texas ranked 30th in a 2009 K-12 “Academic Achievement” study by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

4. The Texas Workforce Commission rejected about a third of jobless claims last year and 27 percent the first half of this year ( jan 2009 ).

5. Unemployment Rate in Texas is 7.9%(p) as of Jul 2009

Steve is right about the Texas govt being smart, look at those amazing facts. Its sad that Limbaugh and Beck lie their asses off and do nothing to help the country, but thats all the right seems to be good at.

If you think this is bad, take a look at what they're doing in Philly with the disgraceful & controversial Barnes Move. The subject of a documentary airing Sept 14 at the Toronto Film Festival called "The Art of The Steal." Pew Charitable Trusts is backing an unpopular effort to use $137mn in PUBLIC FUNDS to dismantle a National Landmark and tear the art out of The Barnes Foundation in Merion PA to make a tourist attraction in Philly. So, how do they justify it??? - Their spin doctors run a Hearts & Minds campaign. They put kids in the middle. They try to say they're doing it for the inner city kids. They have inner city kids doing murals for the construction fence. They say they're making The Barnes "More Accessible" to the inner city kids. In actuality the art at The Barnes is so complex that they shouldn't be wasting money moving the art; but, instead, if they want to touch inner city kids, they should leave the art in Merion & build a Barnes Orientation Center, a hands on Community Arts Program, School and Regional Arts Tourist Bureau on the Proposed Center City Move Site that would orient the kids on ALL of the Region's Art Museums & cultural attractions. . . that would give more starving artists jobs and would truly help educate the kids about all the threads of Modernism and Post Impressionism represented at The Barnes and in all the other great museums in the Philly Region. THE BARNES MOVE STINKS! Urge PEW & Politicians to act More Responsibly in Its Public Arts Projects. KEEP THE BARNES IN MERION! STOP THE MOVE! See Barnesfriends.org

when did nonpartisan stop meaning not being involved with partisan issues and groups, with an idealology.

Although I am an independent, I'll certainly remember to avoid buying and supporting art. In my non politically affiliated way I was under the impression that art was for everyone. Now that I know it is based on a divisive and selective view for only the few, I won't bother wasting my resources or time on it.

Artistic talent is independent of social/political beliefs.

No legislative agenda, but what about the agenda of the executive?

Wonder if Cornyn would make the same statement regarding himself and the NRA?

I think Cornyn ought to be more worried about what artist's do when they're NOT being paid by the government or corporations. Artists are pretty good at expressing their political affiliations whether they have money or not. Paying them may be the best way to keep them from engaging in more mischevious activities. Remember this?

It seems strange to me that during the past administration when there were threatened cuts to the NEA the Senator from my state did not call for a hands off approach from that administration. Seems the Republicans are struggling to hold on to some semblance of power.

Dear Companero Obama, I see you have learned your Marxist lessons well! Just I used to say to artists, musicians, and reporters: "Artistic freedom you ask? You have total artistic freedom... within the Revolution! Outside the Revolution, there is no artistic freedom. Join us and express yourself within our beautiful paradigm!" By the way, From this day on, the official language of Cuba will be Swedish. Silence! In addition to that, all citizens will be required to change their underwear every half-hour. Underwear will be worn on the outside so we can check. Furthermore, all children under 16 years old are now... 16 years old! And whoever created that Joker Obama? Al paradeon!

Cornyn is barking up the wrong tree. Why finger point at the Obama Administration when it's the NEA that organized the conference? Furthermore, if he were barking up the *right* tree, it doesn't follow that exploring opportunities to "promote a more civicly engaged America" amounts to some sort of left-wing propaganda machine.

Proof that critical thinking skills are undertaught in America's schools.

Whoever said there's only liberal artists?? I'm an artist and a conservative.. I wouldnt approve of the idea of using artists for political gains, but at the same time it's hard to make a living as an artist!! Even though i dont agree with the program & i am against this admisistration, do you think i would pass up money to paint pretty pictures??? Hell no! Do i like Obama or his political agenda? Hell no.. but for the right price I would make him look like Jesus Christ himself! Leonardo Da Vinci Dispised the Catholic church, but guess who was paying him???

Are we above everything that works now? WW II and the Depression were not won and beat respectively without a hugely significant infusion of creativity. Churches, movies, music all use art to reach and emote people. A great deal of what is believed to be non-commercial art is for sale and resale. There is nothing wrong in the human endeavor with using the tools we have found as a species to reach each other and lead each other. Please stop acting like we are all too high and mighty to get anything done for that very idea is at the foundation of why this nation has failed to make inroads to real and spiritual poverty. People need leadership and that includes all aspects of verse, song, and the visual art. Look around you and see what is really happening: 30% high school dropout rate, 4 million people in jail, 15 million in criminal gangs, and 10,000 ghettos by any other name. Wake up! Our perception of accomplishment truly undeserved.

I sure wish these republicans would stop making up issues to complain about. They are getting stupider by the minute.

What have conservatives ever been successful at aside from making money? Republican's don't care about art. When have they ever supported increased funding for the arts? This is another GOP red herring to distract Americans from implementing the "change" we voted for - democratically- in November. This is another red herring to keep us distracted from the fact that the only solutions the GOP can offer are privatization, deregulation and tax cuts for the rich. If they shut their mouths for two seconds they'd be exposed for the giant frauds they really are. And so they attack.

And to Eric who responded to Natty Dread: I used to see things exactly your way regarding abortion. I thought, how can you be a good person and think that abortion is alright? Seriously, how could someone think it's ok when it's the most brutal thing I can think of. I felt like this for years. I lost a friend over it because she had an abortion and I just couldn't take it. It totally consumed me. But then I started gaining an understanding of economics and I realized that when people are really poor, they literally become like animals. Morals become a luxury when you're trying to live on very few resources. At this point in our history you need one income per person if you're a member of the working-class and that means that having a child could easily result in homelessness. In my estimation, if we made parenthood more affordable by providing housing/education/daycare subsidies, we'd see far fewer abortions. Women don't want to have abortions. If they truly had a choice, if having a child did not mean potential economic annihilation, women would let their children live and they would raise them. Unfortunately it doesn't look like society is willing to go the distance. What we care about is punishing women who get pregnant (read: women who have sex).

Reminds me of the time I sat in church and the Priest directed us to vote republican in the Presidential election. Representative Clyburn must not go to church or he would be sending a similar letter to the Catholic church. OR, is he really part of a cynical conspiracy on the part of the REPUGLICAN machine to tear apart anything that is good and driven by liberals and or democrats... you decide.

God Bless America!

I just visited the exhibit, "1934: A New Deal For Artists" at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington. It's a great exhibit and represents many artists view of America during the Great Depression. The "United We Serve" project is a very similar patriotic attempt to engage the arts community in expressing American values at a unique moment in time. Only the Republican party could make this program out to be something partisan. Although they probably did the same thing in 1934.

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