White House officials announced Tuesday that it will take steps to prevent a recurrence of a controversial conference call hosted in part by the National Endowment for the Arts that critics argued encouraged artists to produce works that supported the Obama administration's agenda.
"The point of the call was to encourage voluntary participation in a national service initiative by the arts community," White House spokesman Bill Burton said. "To the extent there was any misunderstanding about what the NEA may do to support the national service initiative, we will correct it. We regret any comments on the call that may have been misunderstood or troubled other participants. We are fully committed to the NEA's historic mission, and we will take all steps necessary to ensure that there is no further cause for questions or concerns about that commitment."
Burton told FOXNews.com in a written statement that, in order to avoid a recurrence of the Aug. 10 call, White House officials will meet with the chiefs of staff of executive branch agencies on Tuesday to discuss rules and best practices in this area.
"While we have no reason to believe that the NEA call violated the law, the appearance issues troubled some participants," Burton said. "It is the policy of the administration that grant decisions should be on the merits and that government officials should avoid even creating the incorrect appearance that politics has anything to do with these decisions."
Burton's statement detailing the steps runs counter to a report by ABCNews.com that indicated the White House issued specific guidelines. Burton's response outlined a series of steps rather than specific new rules, including the future issuance of a formal memo for White House staff and training sessions to "make sure the message gets across."
A 44-page transcript of the hourlong conference call hosted by the NEA, the White House Office of Public Engagement and United We Serve, a nationwide initiative launched by President Obama to increase volunteerism, was posted Monday on BigGovernment.com.
White House spokesman Tommy Vietor declined to comment on the transcript when asked Monday by FOXNews.com.
Several officials on the call — including then-NEA Director of Communications Yosi Sergant, Buffy Wicks, deputy director of the White House Office of Public Engagement and Michael Skolnik, political director for hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons — sought focused efforts by the artists in health care, energy and environment, education and community renewal.
"We're going to need your help, and we're going to come at you with some specific 'asks' here," said Buffy Wicks, deputy director of the White House Office of Public Engagement. "But we know that you guys are ready for it and eager to participate, so one we want to thank you, and two, I hope you guys are ready."
Sergant, who has since been reassigned by the NEA, said on the call that the effort was the first of a "brand new conversation."
He told the artists, "Pick — I would encourage you to pick something, whether it's health care, education, the environment, you know, there's four key areas that the corporation has identified as the areas of service. My ask would be to apply artistic, you know, your artistic creative communities' utilities and bring them to the table."
Patrick Courrieleche, one of the artists on the call, first wrote about the experience on the blog Big Hollywood. Courrieleche, 39, of Los Angeles, said the ubiquitous Obama "Hope" poster by artist Shepard Fairey and musician will.i.am's "Yes We Can" song and music video were offered as examples of the artist group's clear impact on Obama's landslide election.
"What I heard was a well thought-out pitch to encourage artists to create art on these issues," he told FOXNews.com in August. "We were told were consulted for a reason, and they specifically stated those issues we should focus on, to plant the seed. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see what they're attempting to do."
According to a transcript of the call, Skolnik told Courrielche and the other artists that he had "been asked by folks in the White House and folks in the NEA" to participate about a month prior to the call.
"You are the thought leaders," Skolnik told the artists. "You are the ones that, if you create a piece of art or promote a piece of art or create a campaign for a company, and tell our country and our young people sort of what to do and what to be in to; and what's cool and what's not cool. And so I'm hoping that through this group and the goal of all this and the goal of this phone call, is through this group that we can create a stronger community amongst ourselves to get involved in things that we're passionate about as we did during the campaign but continue to get involved in those things, to support some of the president's initiatives, but also to do things that we are passionate about and to push the president and push his administration."
In a statement to FOXNews.com, NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman said Sergant acted "unilaterally and without the approval or authorization" of then-Acting Chairman Patrice Walker Powell regarding the call.
"Some of the language used by the former NEA Director of Communications was, unfortunately, not appropriate and did not reflect the position of the NEA," Landesman's statement continued. "This employee has been relieved of his duties as director of communications."
Landesman, who started at the NEA on Aug. 11, the day after the conference call said the call was "completely unrelated to NEA's grantmaking, which is highly regarded for its independence and integrity."
"Artistic quality, excellence and merit are the guidelines for decision-making; favoritism or political affiliation plays no role in NEA grantmaking," Landesman's statement continued. "The NEA is a successful, independent federal agency that has supported the best of the arts and arts education for nearly 45 years. We take our responsibility to the American public very seriously and are committed to upholding this public trust."
In a statement to FOXNews.com earlier this month, NEA officials denied that the call was intended to promote a legislative agenda.
"This call was not a means to promote any legislative agenda and any suggestions to that end are simply false," the statement read. "The NEA regularly does outreach to various organizations to inform of the work we are doing and the resources available to them."