A little less than five months after Tom Finkelpearl unexpectedly announced his resignation, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has appointed a new commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs: Gonzalo Casals. Casals, who has been the executive director of the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art in New York’s SoHo neighborhood since March 2017, will start in his post on April 13.
In a statement, de Blasio said, “Art and culture should enrich the lives of all New Yorkers—not just a select few. Gonzalo understands how to uplift the experiences of New Yorkers from all five boroughs.”
In an interview with ARTnews, Casals said that he plans to continue the city’s CreateNYC cultural plan to work “collaboratively with the many different cultural organizations across the city to make sure they have the tools to fulfill their missions and serve New Yorkers” that would serve as “a blueprint to create a model not only for the city but for the world of what does it look like to have equitable, inclusive, and diverse practices when we talk about cultural production.”
While at the Leslie-Lohman, Casals worked to help transform the museum, long considered by many to be a home for art by white cis gay men, into a place where a more diverse picture of the LGBTQ+ community mattered. Marginalized voices, particularly those of people of color, women, trans people, and those with intersecting identities, are now foregrounded in its programming. Among the major exhibitions it has debuted since he started are a retrospective of the late experimental filmmaker Barbara Hammer survey, a survey of queer abstraction, an exhibition about the artistic practices of sex workers, and part of the New York presentation of the traveling exhibition “Art After Stonewall, 1969–1989.”
In a 2018 interview with ARTnews, Casals said, “To me, it’s more important that this museum is a place for constant exploration and evolution. That opens up the possibilities of what can happen.”
At the Leslie-Lohman, which reopened after a major renovation about a week after he started, Casals launched numerous initiatives, including a fellowship and residency program for queer artists, an education guide for New York City schools on queer art, and a commissions series for artists to create new work for its window façade. He also continued to raise attendance the museum, which saw a 38 percent jump in visitorship in 2019, and worked to establish the museum’s first acquisition endowment.
In a statement, Henry Muñoz, the Texas architect and philanthropist who will be honored at the Leslie-Lohman’s fall gala later this year, said, “Gonzalo Casals’s work created platforms where the diversity of our cultures, generations, sexuality and genres are celebrated publicly and without reservation. His dedication to inclusion and access has allowed thousands of New Yorkers to have unfettered access and experience art in its purest form. I can think of no better person to continue New York City’s legacy as a home to creativity, diversity and art.”
Casals also announced last year that the museum would drop “gay and lesbian” from its official name and launch a capital campaign that would see the museum move its office spaces into the basement to create more spaces for education and open up its archives and libraries to research. As of this month, the museum said it had raised half of the $7 million needed to complete the project, with $3.4 million of it coming from three city entities, including the Department of Cultural Affairs.
Prior to his tenure at the Leslie-Lohman, Casals was the vice president of programs and community engagement at the Friends of the Highline, where he started in 2013, and for the seven years before that he worked in various roles at El Museo del Barrio in East Harlem, where he ultimately served as deputy executive director.
Casals, who moved to New York 18 years ago from Buenos Aires, has previously been involved with a number of citywide initiatives overseen by the Department of Cultural Affairs, including participating in the public engagement of the CreateNYC plan and serving on the NYC Mayoral Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments, and Markers focused on addressing numerous monuments to potentially problematic historical figures.
Finkelpearl has not publicly stated why he resigned from his post, though some speculated that his departure was related to controversies over new public monuments, including one set to replace a statue of J. Marion Sims, who conducted brutal medical experiments on Black women. A panel for the latter statue had originally chosen a proposal by Simone Leigh over one by Vinnie Bagwell, which the community favored; Leigh ultimately withdrew her proposal.
“My approach to arts and culture,” Casals said, “is through a very expansive way with the ideas of cultural democracy, how arts and culture can empower people, serve as mirror for different marginal communities across the five boroughs to see themselves reflected in the life of the city, and as a tool to inspire people to be active participants in society.”
Update, March 11, 2020: This post has been updated to include an interview with Gonzalo Casals.