In an open letter (which you can read on his website), Senator John Cornyn takes umbrage at a telephone conference last month in which the NEA and the White House Office of Public Engagement purportedly sought to enlist artists on behalf of the administration’s United We Serve volunteer initiative.
Cornyn’s letter was prompted by a report about the conference on the Big Hollywood blog. The LA Times Culture Monster blog has the full story. Cornyn is upset because “steering the arts community toward a pro-Administration political message” would violate the NEA’s nonpartisan mandate when it comes to disbursing federal funds to non-profit arts institutions. Reportedly, the teleconference sought to tap into the volunteer energy and spirit generated by the Obama campaign and direct it toward a more “civicly engaged America.” But Lee Rosenbaum also reported her concerns about what she heard during the teleconference in her CultureGrrl blog on Artsjournal.com. Regardless of one’s party afiliation, she writes, it’s easy enough to see that increased, direct government involvement in the arts leads to increased government interference.
A White House spokesman said the idea behind the conference was not about advancing any administration agenda. It was about getting Americans to volunteer. The NEA said more or less the same thing — it often informs organizations about outreach possibilities and available resources.
Ben Donenberg, an L.A. theater director who serves on the National Council on the Arts, the 15-member panel of presidential appointees that advises the NEA, said it’s important for the endowment to avoid the appearance of partisanship, but that Cornyn’s letter to Obama smacks of “grandstanding,” with a political agenda of its own.