New York City Mayor Eric Adams Appoints Laurie Cumbo as Culture Czar, Despite Pushback From Community Leaders

Cumbo is the founder of Brooklyn’s Museum of Contemporary African Diaspora Arts.

Former NYC Council Majority Leader Laurie Cumbo at the unveiling of the Spanish Memorial Plaque in Fort Greene Park. (Photo by Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

New York City Mayor Eric Adams has appointed Laurie Cumbo as the new head of the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs. She previously served as majority leader in the New York City Council.

Cumbo will now spearhead the United States’s largest municipal funder of the arts, distributing more money each year than the National Endowment for the Arts. She will take over for Gonzalo Casals, who resigned from the post in December 2021, at the end of Bill de Blasio’s mayoral term.

“As we work to revitalize our city, the Department of Cultural Affairs will play a vital role in our economic recovery,” 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.”

The arts and culture sector was hit hard by the pandemic, with arts and recreation employment dropping 66 percent between December 2019 and December 2020—the largest loss of all sectors of the city’s economy.

The mayor also released his “Blueprint for New York City’s Economic Recovery,” which includes initiatives to jumpstart small businesses and other areas that have suffered losses during the pandemic.

One of its tenets is to create a new cultural district on Governors Island and a “‘Culture at Risk’ response team to protect New York City’s creative businesses and neighborhood institutions.”

In January, Politico reported that Cumbo faced “potential resistance” to the appointment due, in part, to her opposition to a bill that passed at the end of her time in City Council which would allow noncitizens to vote. In response to the bill, Cumbo, who is a Democrat, said, “This particular legislation is going to shift the power dynamics in New York City in a major way,” and expressed concern over how it would affect Black communities, “who have been the most vulnerable in our existence in our city.”

Immigration advocate and political strategist Luis Miranda (the father of Lin-Manuel Miranda), wrote in an email that “Ms. Cumbo’s recent anti-immigrant statements make it very difficult for me to support her appointment.”

Cumbo was also embroiled in a controversy before she was sworn in as councilwoman back in 2013, when she said that many of her Black constituents feared being “pushed out by their Jewish landlords or by Jewish families looking to purchase homes.” The comment came after a string of “knockout” attacks on Jewish residents of Crown Heights. Cumbo went on to say that “the accomplishments of the Jewish community triggers feelings of resentment” among Black residents, and those feelings “offer possible insight as to how young African American/Caribbean teens could conceivably commit a ‘hate crime’ against a community that they know very little about.”

In addition to serving as majority leader, Cumbo also represented the 35th district, which includes the Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, and Prospect Heights neighborhoods of Brooklyn. Prior to her work in politics, Cumbo founded the Brooklyn-based Museum of Contemporary African Diaspora Arts. She has also worked at arts institutions including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, and the High Museum in Atlanta. Cumbo earned a bachelor’s degree in art history at Spelman College and a master’s degree in visual arts administration from New York University.

“Together, we will center the arts in New York’s economic recovery and bolster the educational and cultural experiences of every New York City student from Pre-K to CUNY,” Cumbo said in a statement. “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.”

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