Yosi Sergant Resigns from NEA
Updated 6:37 p.m.
By Garance Franke-Ruta and Michael A. Fletcher
Yosi Sergant, who became well known during President Obama's presidential campaign for his work with artist Shepard Fairey around the iconic HOPE poster, resigned Thursday from his job at the National Endowment for the Arts.
"His resignation has been accepted and is effective immediately," NEA spokeswoman Victoria Hutter said in an e-mail.
Sergant, a public relations professional from Los Angeles, had come to Washington to work in the Office of Public Engagement at the White House. He moved to the NEA in May and was reassigned from his post as communications director two weeks ago after coming under fire from conservative Fox News Channel host Glenn Beck.
The talk show host accused Sergant of arranging an August conference call with the Office of Public Engagement and United We Serve, a service initiative of the administration, to recruit artists to create works in support of Obama policies.
A transcript of his remarks on the August call was posted on the conservative BigHollywood.com site Monday, leading to an unusual statement from NEA chairman Rocco Landesman on Tuesday, distancing himself and the endowment from Sergant. Landesman said the call was simply to introduce artists to United We Serve, and not to promote any legislative agenda. "Suggestions to that end are simply false," he said. Sergant "acted unilaterally" and "without the approval or authorization" of the endowment's then-acting chairman, Landesman said.
The White House also on Tuesday instructed agency chiefs of staff to be mindful of avoiding the appearance of acting politically. A memorandum (PDF) from White House counsel Gregory Craig and ethics adviser Norman Eisen provided the guidance.
"It is the policy of the administration that grant decisions should be on the merits and that government officials should avoid even creating the incorrect appearance that politics has anything to do with these decisions," White House spokesman Bill Burton said.
Sergant's resignation comes a day after the 10 Republicans on the Senate committee that oversaw Landesman's nomination wrote to the chairman (PDF) to demand assurances that the NEA did not, in August, and would not, going forward, "use taxpayer dollars to engage in lobbying activities to promote the President's health care legislative agenda and other legislative priorities."
The NEA's participation in Aug. 10 and Aug. 27 conference calls in conjunction with either the White House or United We Serve "may have violated the Hatch Act, appropriations restrictions on spending funds for such purposes and/or are in direct contradiction with the NEAs mission under its authorizing statute," the senators wrote in a letter sent out by the office of Sen. Mike Enzi (Wyo.).
During confirmation hearings, they continued, "You specifically stated that the NEA should not become a politicized agency. This situation, unfortunately, significantly undermined that statement and goal."
In particular, they pointed to a blurb under the "Health Insurance" resources tab on the NEA Web site that urged artists -- many of whom are self-employed and lack easy access to health coverage -- to unite to "advocate for real health care reform" and demand "affordable guaranteed-issue insurance." Those words were removed after being flagged by the conservative blog Powerline and replaced with more boilerplate language. The senators requested an October 1 response from Landesman.
The chairman's remarks before assuming office suggest he had hoped for the NEA and the arts community more generally to play an active role in policy debates.
"I wouldn't have come to the N.E.A. if it was just about padding around in the agency," he told The New York Times in an August interview. "We need to have a seat at the big table with the grown-ups. Art should be part of the plans to come out of this recession."
"If we're going to have any traction at all," he added, "there has to be a place for us in domestic policy." His interest in the "role of art in urban revitalization" would play "right into the president's wheelhouse," he told the Times.
But he also told the Chicago Tribune that he didn't intend to let controversy around individual artists damage the agency's mission and goals as a grant-making institution, preferring to steer funds toward excellence but not allowing "one grantee to spoil it for everybody else by selfishly advancing [his] own agenda at the expense of the entire enterprise."
In addition to Enzi, senators signing the letter included: Judd Gregg (N.H.), John McCain (Ariz.), Orrin Hatch (Utah), Tom Coburn (Okla.), Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), Richard Burr (N.C.), Johnny Isakson (Ga.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Pat Roberts (Kansas).
Posted at 6:04 PM ET on Sep 24, 2009
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