Mayor Bill de Blasio made a superb selection in his appointment of Tom Finkelpearl as the city’s new commissioner at the Department of Cultural Affairs. Mr. Finkelpearl has been a fixture in the city’s cultural life for the past 30 years, most notably as the president and executive director of the Queens Museum, so there will be no learning curve in his new post.
In a written statement, the mayor emphasized Mr. Finkelpearl’s work with neighborhood cultural organizations, a reminder that the city’s arts community is more than the great institutions of Midtown Manhattan. “Tom has led efforts to make art and culture more accessible by reaching out to broader segments of the local community and engaging local residents in new and innovative ways beyond the walls of the museum,” the mayor said.
The city’s nonprofit cultural organizations and institutions contribute billions annually to the city’s economy, employ tens of thousands in great sprawling institutions like the Met and in small community theaters and museums in the outer boroughs and attract tourists and bright young talent to the city. The Department of Cultural Affairs has long passed the days when it could be considered an afterthought or a patronage plum.
Mr. Finkelpearl, a sculptor, took over the Queens Museum in 2002 and almost immediately embarked on an ambitious expansion program that doubled the museum’s size. Previously, he had been the executive director of P.S. 1’s Contemporary Art Center in Long Island City.
He has spent his entire career in community-based arts organizations, which positions him perfectly for the mayor’s goal of ensuring that neighborhood arts institutions receive adequate attention and support. That mission is always critical but perhaps never more so than today, when arts education in public schools seems to be first on the fiscal chopping block.
City Comptroller Scott Stringer recently reported that a third of all city schools have no instructors in arts education. Most of those schools, he noted, are in poor neighborhoods. Funding for arts programming in city schools was cut nearly in half from 2006 to 2013, Mr. Stringer found.
If schools cannot afford arts education, it will be up to Mr. Finkelpearl and his agency to keep the arts alive not in Midtown, where the arts are thriving, but in outer-borough neighborhoods, where culture is mistakenly treated as a luxury. It sounds like he is the man for the job.