Updated/Corrected: Art$ groups learn the Chicago Way

Is the Obama administration corrupting the arts by funneling money to arts groups and then not-so-subtly asking them for political work in return?

Big Hollywood Blog first ran late last month with the story of the August 10 National Endowment for the Arts conference call in which White House and NEA officials urged artists to create political pieces promoting health care themes. On paper, the conference call had been led by a government outsider, but that outsider stated during the call that it had been organized at the request of the Obama NEA and the White House.

The call, itself a scandal, is just one sign of a dangerous trend — the Chicago-ization of government in Washington, D.C. An administration funnels stimulus grants to arts groups, the arts groups take the money and lobby Congress and the public for the administration's health care plan.

This is exactly how low-level political corruption works in Chicago. Municipal hiring decisions are made based on candidates' political work on behalf of Mayor Daley and countless other, low-level elected officials who were both allies and enemies of President Obama in Chicago. Those officials can thus keep a standing army of political operatives on retainer, using the taxpayers' dime.

NEA's Yosi Sergant and the White House's Buffy Wicks took part in an Aug. 10 call whose purpose was to encourage works by certain arts groups that would promote health care reform. Two days later, a coalition of 21 arts groups released a statement titled “Urgent Call to Congress for Healthcare Reform,” calling for “a health care reform bill that will create a public health insurance option.”

The headlining group for the letter-signing coalition was Americans for the Arts, the recipient of a $50,000 stimulus grants. According to congressional records, AFA spent $260,000 in the first half of 2009 lobbying for — among other things — President Obama's health care bill.

AFA's CEO, Bob Lynch, says that the group did not participate in the conference call, even though some had erroneously reported that it did. But that does not mean there is no political coordination going on. Lynch did have a later discussion with NEA director Rocco Landesman in which the two discussed health care reform. Americans for the Arts posted and then removed from its website a podcast about that meeting, the Washington Times recently reported.

In all, 16 of the 21 groups on the pro-Obama letter, including AFA, had received some $1.9 million in stimulus grants in the months leading up to the call. The conference call gives one indication of coordination. But the underlying problem is that NEA has funneled a small amount of taxpayers' money to arts groups and then received small political favors in return from grant recipients.

The taxpayer's objection to this kind of Chicago political activity is pretty obvious. In this case, there is also an artistic objection, the corruption of the arts by politics.

The original version of this post cited an erroneous report that Americans for the Arts had been on an August 10 conference call with various Obama Administration officials. Despite its presence on the attendance list for the call, Americans for the Arts insists that the group did not participate.

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