November 1, 2019; Gothamist
When your job is to help disrupt the way things are, the course is likely to be rife with its own internal disruptions—that’s the nature of the role. The commissioner of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, Tom Finkelpearl, has stepped down after serving for five years. His statement gave no reason for his resignation. The city’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, said the decision was mutual.
Finkelpearl, who has an MFA from Hunter College, was well acquainted with working financially with the city before taking on the Dept. of Cultural Affairs. He was director of the Queens Museum of Art from 2002 to 2014. The museum, a building which was part of the 1964 World’s Fair, received $12.7 million of its $17 million in revenue from government grants in 2014.
Mayor de Blasio said, “It’s not unusual after six years, which is a long time for someone to do the same role, that people come to the decision that it’s a perfectly natural point for people to move on.” Finkelpearl brushed aside any hints that there was a break between him and the mayor. “It’s a completely amicable separation,” he said.
Although he is well respected in the arts-and-culture field, Finkelpearl’s tenure was not without controversy. He was charged with commissioning new public art to address the lack of a certain kind of diversity in the city’s monuments. The 23 statues in Central Park—which have been for the most part donated to the city—are all male except for fictional characters Alice in Wonderland and Mother Goose. The plan to add monuments to women throughout the five boroughs of New York has not gone smoothly. Almost every step of the commissioning of pieces has been fraught. There are those who want to remove statues, not just add new ones. Others in the community object to taking away a part of the city’s history. There has been a great deal of discussion on who should be represented with a new monument, and which artist should be chosen to produce the art.
Some advocates in the city would like to remove some of the male statues and replace them—particularly the one in northern Central Park of J. Marion Sims, who was a gynecological surgeon who experiment on enslaved women. The artist subsequently chosen to create a new monument to replace Sims was not the one favored by the Harlem community. (That artist withdrew, so the public won that fight.)
Another monument designed to honor women’s suffrage depicted Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton in the first design. After an uproar on the lack of women of color, Sojourner Truth was added to the statue, to be ready on August 26, 2020, the Centennial Anniversary of the Ratification of the women’s right to vote.
These arguments have drawn attention away from Finkelpearl’s more positive work. “Tom has done a remarkable job in creating a more equitable and accessible cultural sector for all New Yorkers,” de Blasio said. “Under his leadership, the Department of Cultural Affairs has invested more than ever before in underserved communities, made cultural access a core benefit of IDNYC, and worked with the City’s beloved institutions to encourage greater staff diversity.”
Finkelpearl was instrumental in the strategic plan, begun in 2017, to tie city funding of cultural organizations, including noteworthy institutions like the Museum of Modern Art, to diversity of staff and those around the board table. His next phase, he says, will include his third book on cultural policy.
“He has led with character, integrity and humility and the city owes him a debt of gratitude,” said Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundation. “He should be taking a bow.”—Marian Conway