National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Rocco Landesman owes American taxpayers an explanation.
Last month, a top NEA official gathered artists and arts organizations in a conference call that also included a White House official and clearly asked the arts community to get behind the administration's agenda, including the current top priority, health care. A mere 48 hours after the request, 21 art organizations led by an arts lobbying organization, Americans for the Arts, released the first of two public statements endorsing health care reform and urging Congress to act.
Such a meeting would be disturbing enough -- a grant-maker backed by the White House asking grant recipients to support the administration agenda crosses the line from persuasion to coercion. Artists and arts groups that want funding from the NEA to continue cannot help but feel pressure to comply with the administration's wishes. That alone is wrong.
Health reform backers get seven-figure grants
However, when you add in the nearly $2 million the NEA handed out to those very arts organizations in the four months before the conference call -- including more than $1 million in stimulus funds -- it is time to start wondering whether a line has been crossed from merely unethical into the land of special prosecutors. Such an investigation might be the only way to get straight answers.
So far, the administration's response has been a stonewall. Yosi Sergant, then NEA communications director, denied that the NEA had organized the call or that he even had a copy of invitations to join the call. That was not true. A copy of the e-mail invitation from Mr. Sergant himself through his NEA e-mail account is now available on the Web. After this episode, the NEA communications office no longer responded to phone calls or e-mail.
NEA statements at odds with facts
Days afterward, Mr. Sergant was demoted to some unknown position in the NEA. In announcing the demotion, the NEA's unattributed statement continued Mr. Sergant's factual frugality. Among the whoppers: The conference call wasn't anything special because the NEA "regularly does outreach to various organizations to inform of the work we are doing and the resources available to them."
But here's what then NEA Communications Director Sergant said on the conference call: "This is just the beginning. This is the first telephone call of a brand-new conversation. We are just now learning how to really bring this community together to speak with the government, what that looks like legally."
Unless "change" in the Obama administration includes new meanings for "beginning" and "first" and "brand-new," then there are slight discrepancies between what Mr. Sergant said in a private phone call and what the NEA claims in public. If life in Washington teaches anything, it is that words said in private are far more likely to be true than words cooked up for public consumption.
The NEA's statement also claims: "This call was not a means to promote any legislative agenda and any suggestions to that end are simply false." Mr. Sergant's private statements again contradict the NEA's fantasy version of events.
"I would encourage you to pick something, whether it's health care, education, the environment. ... Then my ask [sic] would be to apply your artistic, creativity community's utilities. Bring them to the table. ... Take photos. Take video. Post it on your blogs. Get the word out. Like I said, this is a community that knows how to make a stink. Do it. Do it within your town. Do it nationally. Call on other producers, marketers, publicists, art -- you know -- artists, people from within our community and get them engaged."
Those are not words that "inform" or let artists know what "resources are available to them." Mr. Sergant's words are a call to action. The meaning of Mr. Sergant's words can best be found in the actions of the people who heard them. They went out and endorsed health care reform two days later.
Planned from the beginning?
This is no coincidence. In January, former NEA Chairman Bill Ivey, who advised the Obama transition effort on the NEA, said it in plain English: "I worked hard to try to forge a link between the arts agencies and mainstream policy in the West Wing of the White House. ... I worked hard to get that done and I think that will happen." He was right.
Judge the meaning of those words by the administration's actions. In that conference call, the most important arts agency was working hand in glove with the West Wing to address "mainstream policy" such as health care reform.
New NEA chairman involved?
On Aug. 27 or 28, Robert L. Lynch, head of NEA grant recipient Americans for the Arts, met with Mr. Landesman. On Aug. 28, Mr. Lynch posted a preening podcast monologue about the event. The podcast was short on specifics, but there were tantalizing suggestions that Mr. Lynch's discussion with the new NEA chairman had touched on health care and activism.
How tantalizing? Enough to cause Americans for the Arts to remove audio of the podcast from the Web page where it had been promoted. The disappearing act ended when The Washington Times called about the missing audio. Suddenly the audio reappeared.
Who knows what was said at that meeting. So far, we have only Mr. Lynch's version. One thing is for sure: The meeting was not inconsequential. Mr. Lynch is important enough to have met twice with the Obama transition team to promote the idea of including money for the arts in the stimulus package, an idea that was adopted. Mr. Lynch's organization is also an arts powerhouse; the affiliated political action committee gave $48,000 to Democrats in Congress during the last election cycle. So far this year, Americans for the Arts reports lobbying expenses of more than a quarter of a million dollars.
Mr. Landesman cannot continue the NEA's stonewall. Two million dollars in grants to newly converted health care reform supporters does not pass the smell test. So far, the NEA's excuses don't even pass the laugh test. Mr. Landesman's first test as chairman of the NEA is honestly and publicly addressing this growing scandal.