In August the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) helped organize a teleconference for a few dozen artists, community organizers, and other players in the country’s cultural scene. One of the participants was the Los Angeles–based filmmaker Patrick Courrielche, who was stunned by what he heard.
“The conference call,” Courrielche wrote on the website Big Hollywood, “was billed as an opportunity for those in the art community to inspire service in four key categories, and at the top of the list were ‘health care’ and ‘energy and environment.’ The service was to be attached to the President’s United We Serve campaign, a nationwide federal initiative to make service a way of life for all Americans.”
Established in the 1960s, the NEA has long been a lightning rod for political controversy. But this may be the first time the agency has been accused of pushing the people it funds to create art that supports an administration’s legislative agenda. “I would encourage you to pick something,” NEA spokesman Yosi Sergant told the participants, “whether it’s health care, education, the environment.…Then my task would be to apply your artistic, creativity community’s utilities. Bring them to the table.”
After Courrielche’s account of the teleconference was published, Sergant told The Washington Times that the NEA did not organize the call and that “the invites didn’t come from us.” Then Courrielche published an email message from Sergant asking “arts oriented marketers & producers” to participate in the call. The message’s subject line: “A call has come in to our generation. A call from the top. A call from a house that is White. A call that we must answer.”
Sergant was subsequently “reassigned” from his role as the NEA’s communications director. A White House spokesman told ABC News that far from politicizing arts funding, the call simply reflected “an attempt to get Americans from all walks of life to answer the President’s call for people to get involved with their communities.”