Tom Finkelpearl: ‘We Have to Figure Out Together How New York City Doesn’t Lose the Art World’



Last night, the American section of the International Association of Art Critics—or AICA (“EYE-cah”), as its styled—held its annual awards dinner, at Izhar Patkin’s sprawling studio in the East Village. Quite a few artists and curators were on hand to accept their prizes, like Robert Gober (second place for a monographic show in a New York museum) and newly christened Brooklyn Museum director Anne Pasternak (Creative Time, which she has directed for the two decades, took first place for a show in alternative space, with Kara Walker’s sugar monument). And, of course, there were art critics—Irving Sandler, Phyllis Tuchman, and Phong Bui among them.

But it was Tom Finkelpearl, the former Queens Museum director who is now the commissioner of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, who pretty much stole the show with opening remarks that stroked the egos of the perennially beleaguered critics—always appreciated—while at the same time adding a bit of poignancy to the celebratory evening.

“You can’t have an art world without art critics,” Finkelpearl said, recalling a talk with a Cambodian artist who spoke about the emptiness of the art world in his home country after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, when there was not a single art critic on the scene. “So if you guys don’t think you’re important—and I do think you think you’re important!—you should talk to someone and see what it means to have an art world without critics,” he said.

It turns out that even David Hammons has, on occasion, admitted that critics are necessary. Finkelpearl explained:

“You know David had done those really kind of great body prints when he was in L.A. He was a well-known artist on the scene. But he got a really bad review. And the review said, ‘David—this is a smart guy, he’s got interesting ideas, interesting visual ideas, but he’s kind of stuck on these body prints, and how long is he going to continue to do this?’ It was a pretty bad review, and David looked at the review and he thought, ‘This guy is right’ and this had a huge influence…on his career, and that’s actually when he really started to experiment with materials and to do the sculpture he’s done. He ended up leaving L.A. and coming to New York City.

“So at least that time—because David’s stories change all the time—that particular time that he told the story…an art critic had saved his career from what he thought was a career of successful mediocrity.”

But then Finkelpearl turned deadly serious. “We have to figure out together how New York City doesn’t lose the art world,” he said. “It could happen. It’s becoming so expensive to live here. The pricing out of one neighborhood after the next is compounded by the crisis of student debt. The debt of art students is unacceptable and unsustainable. If you’re in New York City you have to be thinking about that.”

After Walker’s sculpture was torn down, it’s worth remembering, the Domino Sugar Factory was razed to make way for another soaring condo complex in Williamsburg. And just about every day brings news of a colleague moving out of New York.

“The core audience of museums is 91 percent white” in the United States, Finkelpearl said. “That is in a country that is going to be majority minority soon. We’re living in a city that is 65 percent people of color. This is the city we live in today. This is not the future. We’re in the future…One of the problems around some of these shows that come up that are controversial, that deal with race, is [that] there’s not really that diverse a group of people writing about it in the most prominent places.” The room was very much majority white, as is the masthead of this magazine.

Finkelpearl said that, while talking to a woman who works for the NAACP, he argued that people from lower-income communities don’t enter the arts because of the poor pay, but she pointed out: “What about community organizers, school teachers, what about social workers? Those are places where you’re going to make less money than working in a museum,” he said. “The reason they’re diverse is that it’s explicitly understood that you’re giving back to the community,” he said.

“So how do we get to the point as the art community where it is explicitly understood that you are giving back to the community by entering into the profession of art critic or curator or museum CFO or director? So that’s the challenge that we have.

“And with that,” he said, “I’d like to go back to, ‘I love you guys!’”

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