It seems Rocco Landesman, the head of the National Endowment for the Arts, didn't get the memo, literally.
On Sept. 22, stung by controversy over the administration's effort to turn the arts community into proselytizers of its very special brand of hope and change, the White House issued a stern warning to all government agencies: Keep politics out of the arts.
The White House denied that was ever the intent. Many in the media, as is their wont, took the Obama administration at their word.
But not the Web site Big Government (which broke the story) and the Washington Times. They demonstrated that from the earliest days of the presidential transition, Barack Obama's political operation sought to entrench the arts community in its "outreach" operations. Bill Ivey, Obama's transition advisor on the arts, admitted in June: "I wanted to see some real connection between administration objectives and the capacity of all the cultural actors in government. I made some progress. I got some agreement."
That "progress" mostly came in the form of enlisting arts groups -- groups that received stimulus money -- in Obama's national service agenda.
Three days after Landesman was confirmed as the head of the NEA, his communications director, Yosi Sergant, told NEA grantees in a conference call: "I would encourage you to pick something, whether it's health care, education, the environment -- you know, there's four key areas that the corporation has identified as the areas of service."
Two days later, a host of arts organizations endorsed Obama's health care plan: "We call on Congress to pass: A health care reform bill that will create a public health option. ... There is little time to waste ..." Of the 21 groups signing the statement, 16 had recently received grants from the NEA or were affiliated with organizations that had.
Sergant was thrown under the bus, and the Sept. 22 memo put an end to the story for the supportive media.
But the story continues. Last week, Landesman gave the keynote address to the 2009 Grantmakers in the Arts Conference. In fairness, Landesman did not reaffirm the White House and NEA's obvious initial intent to turn the allegedly independent government agency into an adjunct of Obama's "Organizing for America" operation. He was more subtle than that.