NEA chairman explains communications director’s demotion


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‘Loose lips sink ships’ was a watchword in the U.S. Navy during World War II. In today’s culture wars, what got scuttled was a former Los Angeles publicist’s brief tenure as communications director of the National Endowment for the Arts, although he remains on the federal arts-grant agency’s communications staff.

Rocco Landesman, the new NEA chairman, issued a written explanation today ‘to clarify the issues’ surrounding an Aug. 10 conference call in which Yosi Sergant, representing the NEA, invited representatives from the arts world to get involved in President Obama’s United We Serve volunteerism initiative. The teleconference got blogged about as an attempt to enlist artists on behalf of the White House’s agenda, prompting Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) to issue an open letter to the president expressing alarm over the politicization of the NEA, and suggesting that ‘this episode appears to merit congressional hearings and sustained oversight.’


Landesman’s statement reiterated the NEA’s previous response that the purpose of the teleconference was supposed to be to inform the arts community of opportunities to take part in volunteerism programs, and ‘not a means to promote any legislative agenda.’

Sergant entered government service at the NEA after having helped instigate and promote Shepard Fairey’s ‘Obama Hope’ poster campaign during Obama’s election drive last year. According to Landesman, Sergant took part in the teleconference without authorization from his then-boss, Patrice Walker Powell, who was in charge as the NEA’s acting chairman through Aug. 10. Landesman, a noted Broadway producer, said he became chairman on Aug. 11, the day after the teleconference.

‘Some of the language used by [Sergant] was, unfortunately, not appropriate and did not reflect the

position of the NEA,’ Landesman said. ‘This employee has been relieved of his duties as director of communications.’

Asked to elaborate, an NEA spokeswoman sent this excerpt from the teleconference, spoken by Sergant, as the passage that Landesman considered inappropriate: “I would encourage you to pick something, whether it’s health care, education, the environment. There’s four key areas that the corporation [the Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal agency that supports volunteerism] has identified as areas of service. Then my ask would be to apply your artistic, creative community utilities. Bring them to the table.”

Sharing information about opportunities for artists is part of what the NEA does, the spokeswoman said, without elaborating further. Apparently, it was Sergant’s decision to ‘encourage’ and ‘ask’ his audience to act that got him in hot water with his boss.


-- Mike Boehm

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