Watchdogs Wary of Early Push by White House to 'Politicize' NEA

The White House convened a meeting of 60 artists to help push the president's domestic agenda in May, months before a controversial conference call with artists in August led to the reassignment and, on Thursday, the resignation of the communications director of the National Endowment for the Arts.

In what some critics are calling a "troubling" early effort by the Obama administration to politicize the NEA, rappers, dancers, writers and other activists from around the country were invited to a May 12 session next door to the White House, where they were "challenged to come up with promising and attractive ideas about how artists can work for the administration's agenda," according to a report written by organizers of the meeting.

An NEA official in charge of grants for performing artists was in attendance, as was the organization's former chief spokesman, Yosi Sergant, who was reassigned last month after he led a similar conference call with 75 artists and urged them to promote Obama's policies. The NEA announced  Thursday that he had resigned.

One participant in the May 12 session "suggested the people in the room equaled a think tank to serve the administration's aims and asked how in practical terms we could connect to the administration's work," the report says.

Government watchdogs said the meeting at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building was a problematic and partisan use of the NEA, which is supposed to be politically neutral.

"They didn't violate a law but it doesn't seem like a good idea," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "It seems like they're overly politicizing the NEA, and it seems inappropriate."

Sloan said it was "troubling" that the government-funded NEA was suggesting to artists who rely on it for aid that they make a push for the administration.

"There's got to be a certain amount of pressure [the artists] are feeling," she said.

According to the meeting report, the NEA's director of presenting, Mario Garcia Durham, spoke of the "recent increase in the NEA's budget" -- what he called a "break in the clouds" -- that would allow more artists to get government funding.

Durham, who handles grantmaking for some NEA projects, encouraged the artists to apply for grants, the report says, as he "stated the NEA's commitment to the Administration's goals and the Summer of Service programs," a volunteer drive initiated by President Obama.

It is the second such push to come to light, after an uproar over Sergant's statements on an Aug. 11 conference call with another set of artists, whom he asked to develop projects supporting initiatives on "health care, education, the environment" and other administration priorities.

The White House announced Tuesday that it will take steps to prevent a recurrence of the call and discuss proper practices to avoid creating the appearance that politics has anything to do with NEA decisions.

Asked for comment on the May meeting, at which six White House officials were present, White House spokesman Bill Burton told that "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."

The NEA did not return requests for comment on Sergant's role in the May meeting. In a previous statement to, NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman said Sergant acted "unilaterally and without the approval or authorization" during the August phone call.

Artists who were present at the meeting in May said it was organized at their own behest to help promote "community, culture and the well-being of our nation."

Arlene Goldbard, a writer and one of the four artists who helped coordinate the process and prepare the meeting notes, said there was absolutely no pressure on any of the artists to follow a political line

"One staffer from the NEA spoke at the meeting. He extended greetings, talked briefly about the NEA, and took questions," Goldbard wrote in an e-mail to

"It is false to try to make anything more out of this. The meeting report is publicly available and speaks for itself."

Click here to read the report.

The meeting consisted of a two-hour briefing on White House grounds, followed by a brainstorming session at a bookstore and cafe in Washington, where some participants came up with ideas to boost immigration reform, health care reform and green job creation.

Kim Hastreiter, founder of Paper Magazine, developed an idea to create a Department of Alternative Thinking, a "volunteer brain trust/think tank made up of the country's most creative and maverick minds," as participants made plans for a follow-up conference.

White House officials emphasized repeatedly during the meeting that they would stay in contact with the invited artists, according to the report. But White House officials would not say whether there have been any other such meetings with the artists.

Sloane, the director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said it "remains to be seen" whether the White House will follow up on its promise to refrain from wielding the NEA in a political manner, but was reassured that they are taking steps to correct course.

"The White House said they're going to get out guidance" and make sure staffers are aware of legal restrictions. "Let's see that they in fact get the guidance."