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“An elephant. A mouse built to government specifications.”     Robert A. Heinlein,    The Notebooks of Lazarus Long

September 23, 2009

The NEA Con-Call; There’s Not Much “There” There

by Brad Warbiany

On August 10th, a conference call occurred, including folks from the White House, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the arts community. The purpose of the call was to “rally the troops” of artists who had spent time working for the Obama campaign, enlisting their help to push national service initiatives. The revelation of this call was the follow-up by Andrew Breitbart to the ACORN scandal, and as a fellow contributor to his “Big Hollywood” site put it, was pretty damning.

Monday, we have the NEA under the microscope. The Obama Administration was caught red-handed (is that “racist”?) funneling tax payer dollars into an official propaganda department. I can’t wait to see what the excuse will be this time.

Yeah, that’s pretty damning — if true. If there are taxpayer dollars being funneled into the arts community as a walking campaign for Barack Obama, there’s definitely something to be concerned about.

Thankfully, though, this is the internet age. Some anti-government crank in California like me can look at the transcript of the call (available here, courtesy of the very same Andrew Breitbart site), and piece together exactly what happened and what this means.

Because this is going to be a long post, let me set my thesis up front. I don’t like this call. I don’t like what it means. I view what occurred on this call as more properly being the domain of the DNC than the NEA or White House. But I don’t think any laws were broken, I don’t think this is really a walking Barack Obama campaign ad, and what was discussed on the call is not outside the mandate of the NEA.

So let’s look at the call:

Main Participants:
Mike Skolnic: Organizer of call. Independent filmmaker now Political Director for Russell Simmons, asked by United We Serve to arrange this call due to his extensive contacts within the art community.
Buffy Wicks: White House Office of Public Engagement (actual title not disclosed)
Nell Abernathy: Outreach Director for United We Serve
Yosi Sargent: Director of Communications, National Endowment For the Arts
Various artists: Mainly artists already engaged in Democratic activism, some who worked for Obama campaign.

Purpose of Call:
United We Serve is an initiative managed by the White House and the Corporation for National & Community Service, a federal agency formed in 1993 (as an outgrowth of existing agencies) to administer programs like SeniorCorps and AmeriCorps, and expanded in 2002 by George W. Bush to include USA Freedom Corps. United We Serve is an initiative looking to publicize and coordinate community and volunteer service through their Serve.gov web site. The conference call was intended to publicize this site and the United We Serve initiative to influential artists to help them further this in their communities. As such, the call was directed at furthering United We Serve primarily (although assuredly benefiting Barack Obama is a secondary benefit for the White House).

Potential Issues Raised by the Call:
There are several things that could be improper about this call, some of which I will accept and some of which I hope to dispel.

  • Using the National Endowment for the Arts, a funding arm for art and art education, in the furtherance of partisan goals of Barack Obama.
  • Similar to the above, the use of taxpayer funds for the same.
  • Direct influence of the White House Office of Public Engagement on the NEA.

So, again, we need to look at the transcript of the call to hash a lot of this out, because looking at the purpose of the call as I state it above compared to the potential issues raised by the call leaves a lot of room for subtlety and nuance. So if you didn’t click over already, I suggest you read the transcript itself. The advantage of the internet tends to be great access to primary sources, and you do well to make yourself familiar with them before forming a full opinion.

So let’s dispel a few things right up front.

Are taxpayer funds being used?
As far as I can tell, no. There was never a single mention that I could find in the transcript of offer or even discussion of the NEA providing grants or funds for these programs. It was rather one-sided, inasmuch the artists were pretty much told “you’ve shown previously that you care about X, here are some ways that YOU can help make X happen in your community and how Serve.gov will help you do so.”

Is this about partisan legislative efforts and Barack Obama’s agenda?
Again, no. The topic of the call was community service and volunteerism, and the furtherance of Serve.gov rather than legislation. A question was asked by one of the artists at the very end of the call regarding Organizing for America, and Nell Abernathy on the call very expressly stated that the two groups are different, unrelated, and that United We Serve has no intention of using the assistance of the artists for anything other than the furthering of community service and volunteerism. It was left by Nell along the lines of ‘the most I can do is tell you who to contact at OFA, but that’s a ball they need to run with.’

Alternatively, the language from Mike Skolnic (who, as he points out, is not employed by the government) was a bit more open. But I think it was clear that he was speaking not as a voice of United We Serve, the NEA, or the Office of Public Engagement when he made his statements in this manner.

Is the White House exerting partisan pressure on the NEA?
This, again, I don’t really see. It is clear that the NEA is signing up to help United We Serve, but the implications of that are far more interesting.

This is an excerpt (some portions cut to remove unnecessary language) from Yosi Sargent’s portion of the talk. It immediately suggested to me that the NEA was overreaching its mandate to further the arts and art education. The language here is arguably the most objectionable of the entire call (emphasis added):

This is what we fought for. We fought for a chance to be at the table and not only at the table but we’re setting the table. And now the official rule of National Endowment for the Arts, as director of communication and say, We here at the NEA are extremely proud to participate in the president’s United We Serve initiative.

This is a chance for us to partner with the White House and the corporation for national community service along the arts community in immediately affecting some change in our communities.

Really I want to emphasize, and I know that other people have brought it up already, but I want to just hearken back to it really quickly in that 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, we’re still trying to figure out the laws of putting government Web sites on Facebook and the use of Twitter.

This is all being sorted out. We are participating in history as it’s being made. So bear with us as we learn the language so that we can speak to each other safely and we can really work together to move the needle and to get stuff done.

He is quite clearly saying that the NEA is excited to be joining in a partnership with United We Serve and the Corporation for National & Community Service. He is clearly saying that the NEA will be working not just to promote the arts, but to promote actual Federal government programs outside the arts.

Now, this seems to go beyond the NEA’s mandate as explained in their “About Us” page:

The National Endowment for the Arts is a public agency dedicated to supporting excellence in the arts, both new and established; bringing the arts to all Americans; and providing leadership in arts education. Established by Congress in 1965 as an independent agency of the federal government, the Endowment is the nation’s largest annual funder of the arts, bringing great art to all 50 states, including rural areas, inner cities, and military bases.

You see, nothing there says that they should be serving the government’s agenda. Their mandate, according to this very short blurb, is to promote the ARTS, not the government. So, on its face, it appears that the NEA will be going too far…

…but that doesn’t take into account the legislation forming the NEA (PDF), and what mission it was truly tasked with. From Title 20 U.S.C. § 954:

(o) Correlation and development of endowment programs with other Federal and non-Federal programs; expenditure of appropriations. The Chairperson shall correlate the programs of the National Endowment for the Arts insofar as practicable, with existing Federal programs and with those undertaken by other public agencies or private groups, and shall develop the programs of the Endowment with due regard to the contribution to the objectives of this Act which can be made by other Federal agencies under existing programs. The Chairperson may enter into interagency agreements to promote or assist with the arts-related activities of other Federal agencies, on a reimbursable or nonreimbursable basis, and may use funds authorized to be appropriated for the purposes of subsection (c) for the costs of such activities.

What does this mean? The Corporation for National & Community Service is a federal agency, and United We Serve is a portion of that agency that may need arts-related activities. Thus, the National Endowment of the Arts, per the actual founding legislation created by Congress, is well within its authority to use its power, through funding or without funding, to help United We Serve achieve its goals. The NEA is not overstepping its bounds here. Those bounds may be farther out than we realized, but there’s nothing I see that suggests they cannot be doing this.

Now, as a libertarian, I don’t expect myself or most conservatives to like what was discussed on this call. There are reasons to object, largely based on the appearance of impropriety and the fact that the government views these artists as vessels to promote its agenda. There’s a fundamental view of the relationship between the government and its citizens that I believe gets confused. This administration seems to see a path to self-actualization for all Americans through collectivism organized by government. But I don’t see this as anything different, new, or particularly “damning” knowing what we already know about this administration. This is certainly less of a “gotcha” than the ACORN tapes, in factual terms, but I suspect that if you listen to the Glenn Becks of the world, they’ll make a mountain out of a molehill.

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2 Comments

  1. A good argument for abolishing the NEA and all of its employees, its grants, etc. – every single dime.

    Now there’s some Change We Can Believe In.

    I guess the downside is, we’ll no longer have all the great works of art we have enjoyed due to the NEA anymore. All the best novels, poetry, oil paintings, sculpture, and music composition, have probably been produced as a result of the NEA. I mean, where would people like Mark Twain, Georia O’Keefe, and George Gershwin have been without their NEA grants? Oh wait – it wasn’t passed until 1965?

    Never mind.

    Comment by southernjames — September 23, 2009 @ 1:36 pm
  2. Abolish the NEA? Yeah, I can go for that.

    Comment by Brad Warbiany — September 23, 2009 @ 2:41 pm

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