In a surprise announcement, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio said on Thursday that one of the city’s most vaunted cultural affairs officials would step down.
Tom Finkelpearl will leave his post as the commissioner of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, a position he has held since 2014. A reason for his departure was not stated by de Blasio or Finkelpearl in a press release that featured only a brief statement from each, with no background or explanation on the decision and how and why it was reached.
“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,” Finkelpearl said in his statement. “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.”
The news comes less than a month after the Department of Cultural Affairs weathered a controversy surrounding a closely watched public art commission. After revealing plans to replace a controversial monument to J. Marion Sims, a 19th-century physician who performed medical experiments on enslaved black women without anesthesia, a panel of experts said it had chosen artist Simone Leigh to create a new sculpture in its place in East Harlem. Local activists disagreed with the choice, however, and soon Leigh withdrew her proposal. Vinnie Bagwell then became the artist commissioned to do the new work.
The announcement of Finkelpearl’s departure did not mention the controversy, and a representative for the Department of Cultural Affairs declined to comment on the development while directing ARTnews to the city’s release.
In his time at the Department of Cultural Affairs, Finkelpearl has cemented his position as one of the city’s foremost arts leaders. He has allotted millions in grant money to artists and arts programs across New York, and under his leadership, the department launched CreateNYC, an initiative better known as the “Cultural Plan for All New Yorkers,” through which residents can attend various museums for free or at reduced rates. The Cultural Plan has been viewed by many as transformative, though it has also been the subject of controversy, with some artists alleging that the city has obscured the involvement of real-estate development firms in the plan.
“Cultural organizations help make New York unique by providing services and programming that are impossible to outsource,” Finkelpearl wrote in an essay for ARTnews in 2017. “And the ripple effects—of dollars spent directly by cultural organizations as well as by their patrons at hotels, restaurants, and other local businesses—magnify these benefits, supporting hundreds of thousands of jobs in New York alone.”
Prior to joining the Department of Cultural Affairs, Finkelpearl was the director of the Queens Museum, where he oversaw a $68 million renovation initiative and became known for advocating for diversity.
“Tom has done a remarkable job in creating a more equitable and accessible cultural sector for all New Yorkers,” de Blasio said in a 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.”