Monday, September 28, 2009

The NEA, again

The National Endowment for the Arts has shed its communications director, Yosi Sergant, after the airing of a teleconference call in which he “urged members of the arts community to help Obama's efforts to spur volunteer community service,” Mike Boehm reports on the Los Angeles Times’ Culture Monster blog. But Sergant’s departure has not headed off political aftershocks:

A few observations about this kerfuffle:

* The communications director – i.e., chief publicist – of the NEA does not participate in the endowment’s grant-making process, except, maybe, to advise groups of the procedures for applying for a grant. Peer-review panels consider applications and recommend awarding of grants. So Sergant, who had been an operative in the 2008 Obama campaign, wasn’t really in a position to “politicize” the key function of the NEA. That said, merely mentioning a political campaign while speaking for a government agency is asking for trouble; and Sergant, an experienced cultural publicist, must have known that gunning for the NEA is a favorite pursuit of right-wing talking heads and grassroots organizers.

* It’s pretty rich, though, for Republicans to complain about politicizing federal agencies. The Bush administration placed operatives, not just in PR jobs but in posts whose occupants control policy formulation and implementation, in numerous agencies that are supposed to be insulated from the usual partisan give-and-take. Remember Bush-era manipulation and/or suppression of data from scientific, medical and environmental agencies? Remember loyalty to Bush and the GOP being made a key qualification for getting a job in the Justice Department?

* However loudly the usual suspects kvetch about it, the NEA isn’t going away. It survived the Gingrich-era Congress and the Bush presidency. Now it has cultivated good will by awarding a series of one-time grants to recession-rocked arts groups as part of the Obama administration’s stimulus package. Many recipients of these grants reside in the communities whose congressional representatives would be most inclined to de-fund or abolish the NEA. Most elected officials are not keen to offend the community leaders and philanthropists who support mainline arts organizations, because a lot of those people are also major donors to political campaigns.

Congressional liberals and moderates will keep the NEA intact. Conservatives will try to minimize its budget, and use its existence to rally their populist base whenever the opportunity arises. And this mini-uproar, or something like it, will be recycled again and again.