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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

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