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Tom Finkelpearl. Courtesy of New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs.

Commissioner Tom Finkelpearl to Depart New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs

On Thursday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that Tom Finkelpearl, who has served as the city’s cultural affairs commissioner over the past five years, will step down at the end of the year. The news comes amid a controversy over the city’s push to replace public monuments with more statues honoring women, people of color, and previously overlooked historic figures, and took many in the art world by surprise.

“The timing of it is suspect,” councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, chair of the city council’s cultural affairs committee, told NY1. “It doesn’t seem like there is any reason for Tom to go, so I’m disappointed because I think Tom did some terrific work on behalf of the cultural community. It doesn’t seem this was the way he wanted to go.” While de Blasio denied that recent backlash over the city’s plan for its public art—which is being overseen by first lady Chirlane McCray—was related to his departure, at a press conference he also dodged questions of whether Finkelpearl was pushed out, saying that he could not comment on personnel matters. Finkelpearl told the New York Times that the decision was made in a “mutual agreement.”

In a press release issued by the city, de Blasio said: “Tom has done a remarkable job in creating a more equitable and accessible cultural sector for all New Yorkers. 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.”

Finkelpearl, a former longtime director of the Queens Museum, was instrumental in the launch of de Blasio’s CreateNYC program, a ten-year cultural plan that aims to address issues such as equity, inclusion, affordability, and accessibility at arts organizations and institutions across the city, and during his tenure, the cultural budget for the city soared, rising to $212 million for the 2020 fiscal year—the highest sum ever allotted to the arts.

“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,” said Finkelpearl. “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.”

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