Bill De Blasio and family seated at yesterday’s inauguration (image via Flickr user governorandrewcuomo)

What will the arts look like under Mayor de Blasio? “Populist,” the New York Times concluded on Monday, a full two days before Bill put his hand on FDR’s old Bible and promised to champion the huddled masses. Though the question is itself an interesting one, the inquiry is spoiled by the Times’ scattered and credulous treatment of de Blasio’s “taste” in the arts. Under the headline “De Blasio Brings Hope for a Populist Arts Revival,” the front-page culture-section article opens with a two-year-old anecdote from Laurie Cumbo, the recently elected councilwoman and founder of the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MOCADA), getting set up with contacts for a recent trip to Ghana by none other than New York’s new first lady, Chirlane McCray. It’s a nice story (McCray’s brother is a professor in Ghana), but a strange way to set up the article’s central premise:

The abrupt rise of Mr. de Blasio caught much of the city’s cultural establishment off guard and set off anxious speculation about what kind of artistic patron he might be as mayor — a question that took on particular urgency because the city budget is tight, and because the current mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg, a champion and lavish benefactor of small and large institutions, is expected to start sprinkling his philanthropic manna elsewhere.

Though perhaps, at the Times, writing about the arts in municipal politics is a Mickey Mouse assignment, the article’s structure feels incomplete: “anxious speculation” over the city’s loss of Bloomberg’s arts patronage set against softball bits about the de Blasios’ “populist” sensibility in art. Bloomberg was and remains a self-admitted philistine, but in the end it didn’t matter: he generously doled out creative capital (albeit with the retrograde mien of an early Industrial Age patrician).

What of de Blasio, then? “[A] review of his artistic habits and tastes suggests that he could be focused on a different slice of the city’s cultural life than his billionaire predecessor,” the Times writes. “Mr. de Blasio is more likely to be found at smaller neighborhood galleries and upstart museums like Ms. Cumbo’s, which was founded in a Brooklyn brownstone in 1999.” In an unpublished interview with Hyperallergic in August, before the primary, I asked Chirlane McCray about her favored or recently patronized arts spaces, and she told me: “I hate to point one out … but I can point to a few in the last six months: MoCADA in Fort Greene, Brooklyn Museum, [and] I’ve been to a couple small galleries in Manhattan.” She declined to get any more specific than that (though she did note that she belonged to the Quilters’ Guild of Brooklyn) — but she doesn’t need to.

At the end of the day, sensibility is cheap. It matters little what de Blasio or his wife like, just as it didn’t matter what Bloomberg preferred; what makes a difference is how his administration will deploy the instruments of municipal policy to support the arts in a way that is constructive and fair, and whether a de Blasio administration will be able to muster donors, public or private, to fill in the gaps left by Bloomberg’s personal moneys if and when those dollars decamp. The urgency is twofold: in the foreground, immediate funding pressure; in the background, major systemic issues.

We’re not the only ones noting the need for fundamental change: City Councilmember Stephen Levin has dedicated a considerable amount of energy to developing a “Cultural Roadmap” bill for directing arts funding in New York, a process that remains in its early stages. Times critic Holland Cotter too has called for “a palace revolution,” writing in his year-ahead roundup against the concentration of art wealth that is “killing this city as a home to experimental new art.” Looking back on the last year, Christian Viveros-Faune of the Village Voice painted New York’s art economy as the sordid criminal enterprise that it in many ways is, the city’s “dirty, big secret.”

The voyeuristic interest in celebrity taste is a formidable popular fetish, but here it does de Blasio no favors. Even the authors he name-checks — well, there’s nothing at all wrong with them. I’m sure lots of folks are impressed. (Kurt Vonnegut, Catch-22, Dickens, Achebe, “several books in Italian, which Mr. de Blasio speaks.”) But the jaunty Brooklyn-populist narrative offered up here is a phony salve for the deeply problematic world of art in New York. Bloomberg paid to play, with mixed results for the arts. Will de Blasio meaningfully impact the systems underpinning the inequalities of New York’s culture sector?

Mostafa Heddaya is the former managing editor of Hyperallergic.

One reply on “De Blasio and the Mythology of a New Arts Populism”

  1. City government, even in New York, isn’t going to change the art economy. The art economy is a function of artists and art-lovers. What city government can do is bring more arts back to schools.

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