Former Councilmember Laurie Cumbo in an interview with Ronnie Eldridge for CUNY TV in 2016 (via CUNY TV)

Laurie Cumbo, the former majority leader of the New York City Council who has been criticized for what some view as an anti-immigrant stance, will be the next commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs (DCLA), the agency announced today, March 18. Cumbo will succeed Gonzalo Casals, who stepped down at the end of Bill de Blasio’s mayoral term in 2021 and joined the Mellon Foundation as a senior research and policy fellow.

Last December, Cumbo voiced opposition to legislation that allows nearly one million noncitizens living in New York to vote in municipal elections, arguing that it would “shift the power dynamics” in the city to the disadvantage of its Black residents.

“We do not have the numbers or the information to know how that is going to impact African-American communities who have been the most vulnerable in our existence in our city,” Cumbo told Politico.

The comment drew ire from supporters of the legislation and immigration advocates including Luis Miranda, a political strategist and father of award-winning composer and Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda. “I am sorry but Ms. Cumbo’s recent anti-immigrant statements make it very difficult for me to support her appointment,” Luis Miranda wrote in an email to members of Mayor Eric Adams’s transition committee in January, when there was first talk of Cumbo being named commissioner.

“Her appointment is another deeply troubling sign that @NYCMayor is choosing intolerant political loyalists instead of listening to our communities,” said Natalia Aristizabal, the deputy director of the immigration advocacy group Make the Road New York, in a tweet shared by the organization.

Cumbo is a longtime and fervent supporter of Adams, who has defended her potential nomination. “Laurie’s a superstar, and I love Laurie,” he told Politico in January. 

Born and raised in Brooklyn, Cumbo earned an undergraduate degree in Art History from Spelman College and an MA in Visual Arts Administration from New York University. A member of the city council from 2014 to 2021 representing its 35th district ⁠— which covers several Brooklyn neighborhoods including Bedford-Stuyvesant and Clinton Hill ⁠— Cumbo also founded the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts in Fort Greene in 1999.

In 2017, Cumbo successfully sponsored a legislative package that increased funding for the Percent for Art program, a public art initiative administered by the DCLA. At the time, it was the largest package of bills in the history of the agency. She also supported and passed legislation to create the first-ever citywide Minority and Women-Owned Businesses Task Force. 

In a press release shared by DCLA today, several leaders of cultural institutions across the city, including the Laundromat Project and the Brooklyn Arts Council, praised the former councilwoman and welcomed the appointment.

“Laurie Cumbo has been a tireless advocate for arts and culture organizations and, more particularly, organizations led by people of color,” said Melody Capote, executive director of the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute.

But critics of Cumbo cite her record of culturally insensitive and polarizing statements that appear to pit ethnic groups against one another. In 2013, she apologized for writing in a Facebook post that “the accomplishments of the Jewish community triggers feelings of resentment” among her constituents. The comment was made in the wake of a series of attacks on Jewish residents of Crown Heights and was interpreted by many as anti-Semitic. In 2015, Cumbo also apologized for expressing concerns over “blocs” of Asian Americans moving into public housing in her district during a council hearing.

At the height of Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020, Cumbo, who is Black, compared calls to defund the police to “colonization” and said the movement was led primarily by White progressives.

The DCLA is the largest cultural funding agency in the United States, providing hundreds of millions of dollars to more than 1,000 arts and culture nonprofits across all five boroughs of New York City.

“I thank Mayor Eric Adams for appointing me to this position. Together, we will center the arts in New York’s economic recovery and bolster the educational and cultural experiences of every New York City student from Pre-K to CUNY,” Cumbo said in the DCLA’s statement.

Echoing Adams’s tough-on-crime rhetoric, she added: “I also believe we can help address public safety issues in New York City — taking a gun out of the hands of a young person and replacing it with an instrument, paintbrush, camera, or script will redirect the talent and passions of our youth towards building a better and more vibrant New York City.” 

Valentina Di Liscia is the News Editor at Hyperallergic. Originally from Argentina, she studied at the University of Chicago and is currently working on her MA at Hunter College, where she received the...