White House Creates ACORN for the Arts

Over the last week, Big Hollywood and Big Government have been extensively covering the August 10 conference call between the National Endowment for the Arts and a group of artists – a call on which the artists were encouraged to support President Obama’s agenda, with the tacit promise that they would be handsomely rewarded with government grants. The NEA representative on the call was then-Communications Director of the NEA Yosi Sergant.

NEA ACORN 2

Now we have new evidence that the White House itself has been using its sway to recruit artists – not just to support President Obama’s “volunteerism” initiatives, but to support basic planks of his political agenda, including health care. In fact, the White House has been tapping its extragovernmental political allies to work with artists with the tacit promise that NEA funds will be in the offing for those who join the Obama Administration political program.

According to a briefing report from Arlene Goldbard, the Pratt Center for Community Development, State Voices, and the Nathan Cummings Foundation, on May 12, 2009, “more than 60 artists and creative organizers engaged in civic participation, community development, education, social justice activism, and philanthropy came together for a White House briefing on Art, Community, Social Justice, National Recovery.” Each of the sponsors of the meeting was contacted by – yes, you guessed it – Yosi Sergant, who had just been promoted from the Office of Public Engagement to serve at the NEA.

According to the briefing report, the meeting had three segments: “(1) a meeting at the Kaiser Family Foundation to prepare for the briefing, (2) the two-hour White House briefing at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, and (3) a post-briefing meeting at Bus Boys & Poets to interpret and respond to what we had learned ...”

Mike Strautmanis, Chief of Staff for the Office of Public Liaison, spoke at the White House meeting. He introduced Sergant, and stated that Sergant represented the “commitment to bring in people not traditionally part of the political process to share their talents and skills.” More ominously, he stated that “With Yosi and Anita Decker (Director of Government Affairs at the NEA) in place... people very close to the President are involved in the effort.”

Joseph Reinstein, Deputy Social Secretary for the President, spoke at the meeting as well. When he was asked by one artist whether there was a “direct link between arts policy and the Department of Education,” Reinstein stated, “President Obama has asked for greater cohesion and collaboration between agency work and departments ...” In other words, departments under the President’s control are being coordinated with supposedly independent agencies like the NEA.

As if the promise of “quid pro art” weren’t explicit enough from that comment, one questioner (artist Doria Roberts) asked about grants for individual artists: “how open will administration policy be to grants for individuals?” Reinstein replied that while he couldn’t speak to that issue personally, others in the room – read Sergant and Buffy Wicks – could. The proper legal response would have been to reject any link between the meeting and NEA funding. Instead, Reinstein punted, implying that such funding would be forthcoming.

Then it got downright disturbing. Mario Garcia Durham, Director of Presenting for the National Endowment for the Arts, spoke as well. Apparently, he explained that “what the NEA supports and emphasizes comes from artists and organizations.” He also told people to apply to the NEA, and that the NEA was committed to “the new Administration’s goals.” Then he made the king of all booboos: he announced that there was a direct link between shaping government policy and the NEA. “Government and its policies,” the brief reports Durham said, “should be shaped by participants’ voices in connection with the NEA.”

Perhaps the most problematic aspect of the meeting, however, was that it wasn’t just the White House and artists at this meeting – it was the White House, artists, and community organizers: specifically, far-left community organizers in the ACORN mold. The NEA has a commitment to be nonpartisan, but by inviting community organizers and unions to a meeting with artists, it breaks that commitment.

This meeting was designed to concretize the synergistic relationship between far-left community organizers, the White House, the NEA, and artists. Last week, I said that the White House was trying to set up an ACORN for the Arts. I was speaking figuratively. This meeting, however, makes that accusation literal.

At the after-meeting, Michael Nolan of Communications, Contacts & Concepts headed up a group that discussed artists actually writing legislation – in particular, “finding places in the Stimulus Bill where Community Arts organizations can insert themselves.” That’s right – artists, with the tacit promise of NEA funding, attempting to rewrite Congressional legislation.

It gets worse. The post-White House meeting working group on Healthcare Reform was led up not by an artist but by Michelle Miller of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). The SEIU is led by Andy Stern, who picked ACORN head Wade Rathke to handle SEIU’s organizing projects across the country (for more on the SEIU-ACORN relationship, see pieces by Don Loos and Anita Moncrief at Big Government). At the May 12 meeting, SEIU was essentially tapped by the White House to lead artists in the right direction on health care.

The immigration reform working group was led by Sally Kohn of the Center for Community Change, a far-left pro-illegal immigration organization. Again, why was the White House, in conjunction with the NEA, sponsoring an event for artists where leftist community organizers were tapped to discuss these issues with possible grantee artists?

The White House’s total unconcern with using the NEA to promise funding, then bringing in a combination of radical left community organizers to help brainstorm with artists is troubling in the extreme. Again, if all of what has been reported in this briefing report is true, laws were broken. By law, the NEA must remain apolitical. By law, the White House must not funnel federal funds to its friends, or use the NEA to do so. By law, neither the White House nor the NEA may use their governmental status to push outside entities to shape legislation, or provide administrative support for lobbying activities of private organizations.

All of these things were done at this meeting, if the briefing report is correct. Congress must investigate this meeting, too. And Americans must be on a sharp lookout for the quid pro art that is quietly and steadily taking place with our tax dollars.

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