White House Encourages Artists to Paint Pro-Obama Artwork
by John Cornyn on September 9, 2009 at 8:28 PM
A conference call was recently hosted by the White House, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), and United We Serve that allegedly encouraged a select group of artists to produce artwork that promotes the President’s political agenda- specifically with regard to health care reform and cap-and-trade legislation.
Dear President Obama:
A recent blog post by Los Angeles-based artist Patrick Courrielche details an August 10, 2009, conference call hosted by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the White House Office of Public Engagement, and United We Serve. The stated purpose of the call was to encourage a select group of artists “to help lay a new foundation for growth, focusing on core areas of the recovery agenda – health care, energy and environment, safety and security, education, community renewal.” According to Mr. Courrielche, the NEA and the White House were “steering the art community toward creating art on the very issues that are currently under contentious national debate; those being health care reform and cap-and-trade legislation.”
If accurate, Mr. Courrielche’s account of this conference call organized and hosted by your Administration raises a number of serious concerns. First and foremost among these concerns is the participation of the NEA in a conversation “steering” the arts community toward a pro-Administration political message.
As you know, the NEA is the largest annual funder of the arts in the United States. And the imprimatur of an NEA grant often spurs private funding, making NEA grant decisions even more powerful within the arts community. But, as former NEA Chairman Dana Gioia wrote in 2007, “[t]he NEA does not dictate arts policy to the United States ...” Indeed, as Gioia observes, this feature is what distinguishes the NEA from other nations’ centralized ministries of culture.
A reasonable observer would view the NEA’s participation in the August 10 call as implying that NEA grant opportunities (i.e., taxpayer dollars) may be tied to artists’ willingness to use their creative talents to advance your Administration’s political agenda. This is not, and has never been, the purpose of the NEA.
Such politicization of the NEA is particularly dangerous at a time when the arts community struggles for philanthropy. But even if no NEA funding was intended for political purposes, one cannot escape the disturbing impression that this Administration- including appointees within the White House and the NEA- believes that it is appropriate for the federal government to enlist the arts community for the purpose of furthering a specific political agenda. I agree with President John F. Kennedy, who said that “[w]e must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth.”
I urge you to make clear that your Administration will never allocate taxpayer dollars to artists based on their support for Administration policy initiatives. Further, I respectfully request that you take the necessary steps to ensure that the NEA- and the American arts community it supports- remain independent from political manipulation by the White House.
This episode appears to merit congressional hearings and sustained oversight- and so I request your prompt response to these charges and my concerns.