Update: On 18 March, previous reports of Cumbo's appointment were confirmed by the Department of Cultural Affairs. The article has been updated to reflect this and incorporate a statement from Eric Adams.
The next commissioner of New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs (DCLA) will be Laurie Cumbo, a former member of the city council whose comments have repeatedly sparked controversy. The news was originally reported on 16 March by The City and confirmed by the DCLA on 18 March. Cumbo, an ally and supporter ofmayor Eric Adams, founded the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA) in Brooklyn in 1999.
“As we work to revitalise 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,” Adams said in a statement. “Laurie Cumbo brings a breadth of experience in the arts, community advocacy, and city government to her role as commissioner.”
In a statement thanking Adams, a former New York Police Department captain who has made cracking down on crime a central part of his platform, Cumbo said, “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.”
It is customary for incoming mayors to appoint new cultural commissioners, and Cumbo was a very prominent supporter of Adams during his campaign for the democratic nomination for mayor, the most competitive stage of the mayoral election in overwhelmingly democratic New York City.
The department is by some measures the largest cultural funding agency in the US. Its current expense budget is over $200m and it has a capital budget of more than $1bn over the next four years. The department provides millions of dollars in funding every year to arts organisations throughout New York City, from major institutions including the Metropolitan Museum and Brooklyn Museum to neighbourhood dance spaces and artist-run galleries.
Cumbo was a member of the city council for New York from 2014 until the end of 2021 representing its 35th district, which includes parts of downtown Brooklyn and several adjacent neighbourhoods. From 2018 to the end of 2021 she was also the council’s majority leader.
During her time on the city council, she repeatedly faced criticisms and raised eyebrows with her comments and voting patterns. Most recently, in December, she voted against a bill she had co-sponsored after voicing concern that giving more non-citizens the right to vote could dilute the voting power of Black Americans. Her comments alarmed Luis Miranda, a political strategist on Adams’s mayoral transition committee (and the father of Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda). “I am sorry but Ms. Cumbo’s recent anti-immigrant statements make it very difficult for me to support her appointment,” he wrote in an email to fellow committee members, according to Politico.
In the summer of 2020, amid a wave of protests against police violence in New York City—many of which started or ended at the Barclays Center arena in her district—Cumbo likened calls to defund the police to “colonisation” by white progressives. In 2015 she face rebukes from Asian American elected officials after she expressed dismay at the large “blocs” of Asian residents moving into public housing units in her district.
And before her election in 2013, Cumbo denounced a real estate lobbying group’s contribution to her campaign after receiving $80,000. After winning, she told the Brooklyn Paper, “It would be almost malpractice to be a councilmember and to have no relationship with the developers who are building this community.”
Prior to her foray into politics, Cumbo not only founded and served as the inaugural executive director of MoCADA, but was also a professor of arts management at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute from 2001 to 2009.
Cumbo replaces Gonzalo Casals, who stepped down as commissioned in December and was previously the director of the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art. Casals was former mayor Bill de Blasio’s second cultural affairs commissioner after his predecessor, former Queens Museum director Tom Finkelpearl, resigned a year into de Blasio’s second term following a controversy over the selection of public art commission to replace a monument to J. Marion Sims, a 19th-century surgeon and gynecologist who experimented on enslaved Black women he refused to anaesthetise.