In the wake of controversy over the town’s public monuments, Mayor Bill de Blasio on Thursday stated that his cultural affairs commissioner, Tom Finkelpearl, could be departing after 5 years within the place, an announcement that took arts establishments abruptly.
“I’m shocked by the news,” stated Anne Pasternak, the director of the Brooklyn Museum. “Tom has made tremendous, historic achievements for our city.”
The mayor’s assertion made no point out of the latest battles over the town’s efforts to rethink its public monuments and to construct extra statues honoring girls and folks of colour, an effort that has largely been led by Mr. de Blasio’s spouse, Chirlane McCray.
“Tom has done a remarkable job in creating a more equitable and accessible cultural sector for all New Yorkers,” Mr. de Blasio stated in his assertion, including, “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.”
Mr. Finkelpearl in a phone interview stated the choice was made by “mutual settlement” (and that it was unrelated to his earlier remedy for most cancers, which is in remission).
“It’s time for new leadership at this agency,” Mr. Finkelpearl stated. “The vitality that’s wanted to get to the end line could be higher achieved by a brand new individual.”
He additionally stated he was happy with his tenure, throughout which the town’s cultural price range elevated greater than 35 p.c to $211.6 million for fiscal 12 months 2020 from $156.1 million for fiscal 12 months 2014. “This is the best budget in the history of New York City,” he stated. “That’s an achievement.”
Mr. Finkelpearl helped spearhead the town’s efforts to tie its funding to the range of arts establishments’ workers and board members beneath the cultural plan, unveiled in 2017.
“There’s a long way to go,” he said, “but we’ve really opened up a dialogue toward making a change.”
He also cited the fact that more than 700,000 people have received free museum memberships through the city’s new ID cards.
The commissioner declined to discuss the reasons for his seemingly abrupt departure, but those close to the situation — who declined to be identified for fear of repercussions from the mayor — theorized that Mr. de Blasio had grown frustrated with the blowback from the city’s public monuments efforts.
Most recently, Harlem residents protested the artist Simone Leigh, who had been recommended by a city-appointed advisory panel to create a replacement for the monument that honored J. Marion Sims, the 19th-century “father of gynecology” who conducted experimental operations on enslaved women. The city ultimately instead selected the artist favored by the community, Vinnie Bagwell.
Mr. de Blasio also found himself having to defend the city’s decision not to make the nun Mother Cabrini one of its first new statues — even though she received the most votes in an online city poll asking which women should be honored.
The outcry from Catholics — not to mention the actor Chazz Palminteri calling the mayor’s wife, Chirlane McCray, a “racist” — gave Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo the opportunity to be the hero, announcing on Columbus Day that the state would pay for a monument honoring Cabrini, who created health and social welfare programs for poor Italian immigrants and was made a saint in 1946.
Another hornet’s nest resulted after a planned Central Park monument to women’s suffrage, featuring Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, was criticized for excluding black women. Sojourner Truth was added to the design, but that in turn prompted more than 20 academics to object that the grouping would be misleading, because the white suffragists’ rhetoric “treated black intelligence and capability in a manner that Truth opposed.”
Some in the city’s cultural world wondered on Thursday if Mr. Finkelpearl was unfairly taking the fall for these missteps, perhaps in an effort to shift accountability away from Ms. McCray.
Asked in a news conference on Thursday to elaborate on his reasons for parting ways with Mr. Finkelpearl, Mr. de Blasio said: “I’m just not going into the day-to-day inner workings. Personnel matters are personnel matters. They are treated with respect and discretion.”
A mild-mannered, by-the-book administrator, Mr. Finkelpearl often seemed ill-suited for a job that required political savvy and occasional brass knuckles. Jimmy Van Bramer of Queens, chairman of the City Council committee that oversees cultural affairs, in hearings would urge Mr. Finkelpearl to take the gloves off. “I called on him to be a more public and forceful advocate on behalf of the community,” Mr. Van Bramer said. “I would say, ‘Don’t you agree that we need more funding for culture and the arts?’ And he would never say yes. I would have to ask him the question 10 different ways, but he wasn’t getting out in front of the mayor, which I respect. That’s his job. He knows who he works for.”
Mr. Finkelpearl had been reluctant to take on the commissioner position in the first place. Having just completed a major renovation at the Queens Museum as its longtime president and executive director, he was loath to abandon that institution just when the doors had reopened.
Nevertheless, after accepting the job, Mr. Finkelpearl became a loyal soldier. “He has led with character, integrity and humility and the city owes him a debt of gratitude,” said Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundation. “He should be taking a bow.”
In light of that performance, some city officials expressed exasperation on Thursday about what they assumed was Mr. de Blasio’s decision to cut him loose. “What did Tom do wrong?” asked one such official. “I don’t see what he did to merit this inglorious departure.”
The news rippled through the city’s arts community, in part because Mr. Finkelpearl is so widely admired. “Tom has a deep understanding of how museums work,” said Max Hollein, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “and what important role they play in the community.”
Mr. Finkelpearl also has a long history with the city’s cultural life, having begun his career in 1982 at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center — now MoMA PS1 — in Long Island City, Queens, which he joined as a public affairs officer. After serving as the executive director of programs at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine from 1996 to 1999, Mr. Finkelpearl returned to P.S. 1 in 1999 as deputy director, and helped manage its 2000 merger with the Museum of Modern Art. He became executive director of the Queens Museum in 2002.
“There’s a terrific legacy for Tom Finkelpearl when it comes to promoting culture and the arts in the City of New York,” Mr. Van Bramer said. “He’s a true believer.”
Mr. Finkelpearl said he was looking forward to the next chapter, which will likely include a new book about cultural policy (he has written two others) and that he was leaving with no hard feelings. “I’ve been able to talk to the Mayor when I need to; I’m a de Blasio loyalist to this day,” he said. “It’s a completely amicable separation.”