NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman Gives the Facts

Wednesday, September 23, 2009
National Review Online

Lynne Munson

NEA chairman Rocco Landesman, who was confirmed by the Senate on August 7 and began serving the day after his agency organized its now-infamous conference call, may be an excellent Broadway producer. But he’s still struggling to find his voice as a public servant.

As evidence, let me cite his statement on the conference-call matter, issued yesterday. For readers who might be jumping into this discussion for the first time: This call, organized and participated in by the NEA using agency (in other words “taxpayer”) resources, asked some 75 artists to use their talents to promote a huge portion of President Obama’s domestic agenda. Two days later, 21 arts organizations endorsed Obama’s health-care plan. According to the Washington Times, those groups received $2 million in NEA grants during the four months leading up to the call.

Instead of issuing an apology for his agency’s role in this controversy, Landesman uses his statement to “clarify the issues” regarding the call. “Here are the facts,” he writes, and then presents an actual list (“Fact 1,” “Fact 2,” … “Fact 6”). This is amazing. It reads like a schoolboy defending some indefensible behavior. Rest assured, no form of apology appears anywhere.

I won’t pain you with each “fact,” just one that is particularly appalling. It reads, in part:

Fact 3: This call was not a means to promote any legislative agenda and any suggestions to that end are simply false.

Just a glance at the transcript of the call reveals Landesman to be flat-out wrong.

“So we’ve kind of narrowed it down to four main areas to give people a little bit of direction,” explained Buffy Wicks, who was dialing in to the call from her perch at the White House’s Office of Public Engagement. The areas? Wicks explained that they conferred with cabinet agencies to determine that the greatest are health care, energy and the environment, education, and community renewal. And she talks about the president’s agenda in each area. She then says: “We need your guys’s help to promote this. We know that you all have channels and ability to get the message out far greater than we do here and the president’s put out the call.” Another White House participant then comes on to reinforce’s Buffy’s message.

If hearing from these two White House appointees hasn’t intimidated these potential NEA grant applicants enough, next on is (now former) NEA director of communications Yosi Sergeant: “Pick — I would encourage you to pick something whether it’s health care, education, the environment, you know, there’s four key areas.#…#My ask would be to apply artistic, you know, your artistic creative communities’ utilities and bring them to the table.”

Perhaps Mr. Landesman’s education at the Yale School of Drama and his experience running broadway theaters, producing shows, including Angels in America, and owning baseball teams and racehorses has not prepared him to recognize a list of public-policy issues. And perhaps he doesn’t realize that when you take a job giving away millions of tax dollars, and you find yourself in a situation where both the White House and a prominent member of your staff has done something that creates the appearance that your grant dollars are somehow tied to the fulfillment of “asks” for acts of creative propaganda, the appropriate words to use are these:

“I apologize, to the American public and particularly to the nation’s artists, for anything the National Endowment for the Arts may have done to suggest that our grant dollars are tied in any way to support for White House initiatives. They are not. In addition to dismissing the relevant staff members, I have initiated an investigation into the process whereby grants were given to institutions that have recently engaged in public-policy discussions with either the NEA or the White House. I will share the results of that investigation as soon as they are available. Again, I and the NEA regret this episode.”

— Lynne Munson served as deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities from 2001-2005. Her book, Exhibitionism: Art in an Era of Intolerance, traces the evolution of the NEA’s grants to visual artists.

09/23 05:07 PM

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