Tom Finkelpearl, former commissioner of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Tom Finkelpearl, commissioner of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs (DCLA), stepped down from his position today in an unexpected announcement. No specific reason was given to Finkelpearl’s resignation after almost six years as New York’s top culture official.

“With my great colleagues at the agency, fellow commissioners across City government, and terrific support from the Mayor and the First Lady, we’ve been able to make record investments in our city’s cultural community,” said Finkelpearl in a statement. He added: “We’ve insisted that a more diverse cultural workforce will make stronger cultural institutions. We’ve infused hundreds of millions of dollars in the cultural sector, with a focus on getting more of it to historically underserved areas. And we’ve brought the arts into City government itself, trusting artists to help creatively address civic issues.”

Finkelpearl entered his position at the DCLA in 2014 as an appointee of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. Before that, he served as the director of the Queens Museum for 12 years (2002 to 2014), during which he oversaw the museum’s two-year, $68 million renovation.

Finkelpearl had a stormy tenure at the DCLA, muddled in a series of controversies over the funding, selection, and removal of public monuments; the allocation of budgets to culture and art; and issues of diversity and representation.

Recently, the DCLA was in hot water over the selection process of two major public monuments in Central Park. A monument to women’s suffrage at the park was subject to months-long acrimonious debates and recurring hearings until it was finally approved earlier in October. So was the case in the selection of a monument to replace the removed statue of J. Marion Sims, a 19th-century gynecologist who performed brutal and invasive experimental surgeries on enslaved Black women. Artist Simone Leigh, who was chosen to create the new monument by a panel for the commission, withdrew her proposal to clear the way for the selection of Vinnie Bagwell’s proposal, which was favored by community representatives in East Harlem. A hearing for the moment devolved into shouts and tears after the panel members delivered their unpopular vote. Finkelpearl eventually called the panel’s decision “advisory” in an attempt to calm the atmosphere in the room. Finkelpearl was also involved in an ongoing dispute between de Blasio and NY Governor Andrew Cuomo over a monument for the Roman Catholic patron saint of immigrants, Mother Cabrini.

Tom Finkelpearl (Courtesy of Demetrius Freeman/Mayoral Photography Office)

In 2017, Finkelpearl and De Blasio announced the launch of CreateNYC, a 10-year cultural plan to increase access to arts and culture programming in the city’s five boroughs. The plan was publicly contested by the People’s Cultural Plan (PCP), an independent group of artists and cultural workers, who accused the City of touting a “cosmetic and feel-good narrative” without concrete funding commitments and without proposing “adequate anti-displacement policies.” In September of this year, the DCLA announced the 2019 edition of CreateNYC, boasting $1 billion in budgets to arts and culture since 2017 and highlighting programs for diversity and inclusion in the cultural workforce, and the support of the cultural life of low-income communities and underrepresented groups. The PCP continued to criticize the DCLA for lack of transparency, for privileging the interests of the real estate industry, and for making only small, incremental changes toward funding equity.

“Tom has done a remarkable job in creating a more equitable and accessible cultural sector for all New Yorkers,” de Blasio said in today’s statement. “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. He has touched the lives of millions of everyday New Yorkers with the joys of art, history and nature and I thank him for his dedicated service to the City.”

Finkelpearl will officially end his service as commissioner at the end of 2019.

Hakim Bishara is a Senior Editor at Hyperallergic. He is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital Arts Writers Grant and he holds an MFA in Art Writing from the School of Visual...