White House Cautious Over NEA Politics Flap

The White House has told government agencies to be careful not to bring politics into the awarding of federal grants. It's a response to a conference call last month between the National Endowment for the Arts and artists. The White House says the call did not violate policy, but critics say it demonstrates the White House is trying to promote its legislative agenda.

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The National Endowment for the Arts hits the largest federal fund of the arts. It's embroiled in a controversy and it all goes back to a conference call held in August. In that call, the NEA's director of communications urged artists to use their talents to help achieve some of President Obama's goals.

NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports.

ELIZABETH BLAIR: The conference call on August 10th was hosted by the NEA, the White House Office of Public Engagement, and United We Serve, President Obama's national service initiative. On the phone were artists, marketers and consultants, many of whom worked on President Obama's campaign. Much of the conference call was devoted to explaining United We Serve. But when Yosi Sergant, the NEA's then director of communications got on the line, his language was less informational and more like a call to action.

Mr. YOSI SERGANT (Former Director of Communications, National Endowment for the Arts): I would encourage you to pick something, whether it's health care, education, the environment. (Unintelligible) would be to apply artistic, you know, your artistic creative community's utilities and bring them to the table.

BLAIR: The conference call was recorded by Patrick Courrielche, an L.A.-based artist, arts producer and blogger.

Mr. PATRICK COURRIELCHE (Artist): For them to come to our community and mention health care and talk to this group about health care, that's what I thought was unusual. At the time, in the beginning of August, it was the biggest debate on television.

BLAIR: Patrick Courrielche has written extensively about the column, accusing the NEA of setting up a propaganda machine.

Mr. COURRIELCHE: When you have the National Endowment for the Arts on the phone call, asking a group to address specific issues that are being debated, I absolutely have a problem with that.

BLAIR: The story has become a favorite of conservative commentator Glenn Beck. George Will wrote a column about it in the Washington Post saying it's an example of the Obama administration's, in his words, lust to politicize everything.

The NEA reassigned Yosi Sergant in light to the controversy, the White House issued an advisory to federal agencies to take care to avoid even the appearance that politics played a part in the award of federal grants. Doug McClennan is editor of artsjournal.com.

Mr. DOUG MCCLENNAN (Editor, ArtsJournal.com): I saw this and I went, oh no, this undone years of work.

BLAIR: McClennan says this may take the NEA back to the 1980s and early '90s, when it was giving federal funds to artists who are accused of producing offensive inappropriate work.

Mr. MCCLENNAN: So it's very problematic for the NEA to be seen as taking a political role.

BLAIR: During those culture wars, there was a call to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts altogether.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News, Washington.

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