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News Flash: Yosi Sergant, Embattled NEA Communications Head, Reportedly Reassigned

Yosi Sergant

The Washington Times, Washington Post and Huffington Post are among several media outlets now reporting that Yosi Sergant, who has incurred criticism for participating in a conference call promoting the agenda of President Obama‘s United We Serve campaign, is out as the National Endowment for the Arts’ communications director. The reports say that Sergant now has another (unspecified) assignment within the agency. (I have a query in with NEA about exactly what that new assignment is, and why Sergant’s role has changed.)

Sergant seems to have confused his previous promotional functions for the Obama campaign (which included working with artist Shepard Fairey to create and distribute the iconic “Hope” poster, above) with his role as a federal agency spokesperson.

LA Weekly
last September described Sergant’s then role as a publicist for Obama’s candidacy this way:

He’s worked on publicity and marketing campaigns for car
companies and fashion designers, but since 2006, he has also been
applying his lifestyle-marketing savvy to the candidacy of Barack Obama, specifically among those he calls “the creative community.”

From Patrick Courrielche‘s report about the Aug. 10 “United We Serve” conference call (in which he and others from the arts community were invited to participate), it appears that Sergant may have been inappropriately “applying his lifestyle-marketing savvy” to his bully pulpit at NEA.

My own experience, on a later conference call, was somewhat different from Patrick’s: There was no NEA participation. But the call’s host, Kalpen Modi, associate director and arts liaison for the White House Office of Public Engagement, informed us that although NEA and NEH representatives “had other meetings that came up, …we’re definitely going to be including them in some follow-up and future calls and separate lunches that we do.”
On that Aug. 27 conference call, the arts community was encouraged to participate in and promote good deeds that no one—left-wing or right-wing—could possibly have found objectionable or politically sensitive.

That said, I nevertheless object to the federal government’s (and, especially, NEA’s) trying to herd cats—the artistic community. NEA should not be involved in an attempt to get its constituents to participate in Presidential initiatives, no matter how laudable those public-service objectives may be. The agenda for the arts community should be generated from within the arts community and should not come down from the White House.

As for Glenn Beck‘s professed concern for “artistic freedom,” we can only hope that extends to endorsing federal support—in the form of NEA grants—for unfettered artistic expression, with no political interference from the left or right in matters of content or manner of presentation.

This contretemps has already prompted one Senator—John Cornyn (R-Texas)—to write an otherwise reasonable letter to President Obama, with this zinger at the end:

This episode appears to merit Congressional hearings and sustained oversight.


an ArtsJournal blog