Laurie Cumbo, a former arts administrator and New York City Council Majority Leader, has been picked to be the city’s next Department of Cultural Affairs commissioner. The Mayor’s Office confirmed the news Friday afternoon, after a week of speculation about her pending appointment.
Considered one of the most important jobs in the city’s art ecosystem, the position had remained open despite Mayor Eric Adams entering office over three and half months ago. The Cultural Affairs department is the largest municipal funder of the arts in the United States and provides funding to over 800 cultural organizations throughout the five boroughs.
In a statement, Adams said, “As we work to revitalize our city, the Department of Cultural Affairs will play a vital role in our economic recovery—expanding access to the arts for outer-borough children and providing increased support for local artists. Laurie Cumbo brings a breadth of experience in the arts, community advocacy, and city government to her role as commissioner. She will be instrumental in leading our efforts to strengthen New York City’s vibrant cultural life and connect New Yorkers to cultural experiences and institutions in all five boroughs.”
Cumbo was elected to the New York City Council for its 35th District, representing several Brooklyn neighborhoods, including Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, and Prospect Heights, in 2013. Cumbo took over the seat previously held by New York State Attorney General Letitia James, who was elected New York City Public Advocate that year.
Cumbo was named the council’s Majority Leader by Speaker Corey Johnson in 2018, serving until the end of last year. Cumbo was not eligible to run for re-election for her council position because of term limits. While on City Council, Cumbo served on the committee for cultural affairs, among others.
Cumbo, who was an early endorser for Adams’s mayoral bid, recently faced controversy over her stance on one of the last bills she voted on as a City Council member.
In December, New York City passed a law through which non-U.S. citizens would be eligible to vote in future municipal elections. This could allow for almost 1 million people to be added to the municipal electorate. The bill passed the Council 33-14, with 10 Democrat members voting against it, including Cumbo. Politico reported that Cumbo expressed that the legislation would “shift the power dynamics” within the city’s elections.
“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 at the time.
In January, when there was speculation that Cumbo would be named cultural affairs commissioner, Politico reported that political consultant Luis Miranda, the father of Lin-Manuel Miranda, who was appointed to co-lead the Arts, Park and Culture committee for Adams’s transition team, had expressed concern about Cumbo’s appointment to fellow committee members.
“I am sorry but Ms. Cumbo’s recent anti-immigrant statements make it very difficult for me to support her appointment,” Miranda wrote, according to an internal document reviewed by Politico.
Prior to her election, Cumbo was the founder and executive director of the Museum of Contemporary African Diaspora Arts, which opened in the city’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in 1999 before moving to its current location in Fort Greene in 2006. The idea for the museum grew out of Cumbo’s graduate thesis at New York University “on the feasibility of an African diaspora museum contributing to the revitalization of central Brooklyn economically, socially, politically, and aesthetically,” according to the organization’s website. The museum hosts programs for visual arts and performing arts and includes a creators residency program.
If appointed, Cumbo would replace Gonzalo Casals, who resigned at the end of Bill de Blasio’s mayoral term in 2021 after having taken up the post the year before. Casals recently became a senior research and policy fellow at the Mellon Foundation.
The city’s preliminary budget for the upcoming fiscal year, released earlier this month, allocates $144.2 million for the department, about an 8 percent reduction from its current allotment of $193.1 million. Previous commissioners have often been museum leaders prior to their appointment. Casals had been executive director of the Leslie Lohman Museum, and his predecessor, Tom Finkelpearl, had directed the Queens Museum.
In a statement about her appointment, Cumbo said, “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. 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.”