New York mayor taps Queens museum director as cultural affairs commissioner

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Bill de Blasio is expected to announce Tom Finkelpearl’s appointment today as the head of the largest arts agency in the country

By Julia Halperin. Web only
Published online: 07 April 2014

Tom Finkelpearl at the opening of Pedro Reyes’s “The People’s United Nations” at Queens Museum. Photo: Scott Rudd

Ending months of speculation, the mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio, is due to appoint Tom Finkelpearl, the executive director of the Queens Museum of Art, as the city’s cultural affairs commissioner today. With an annual budget of $156m, New York’s department of cultural affairs is richer than any other government arts agency, including the National Endowment of the Arts in Washington, DC. As commissioner, Finkelpearl will administer grants to hundreds of arts groups, facilitate public art projects and serve as the most visible advocate for the arts in New York City.

Arts advocates have been awaiting the appointment of a cultural affairs commissioner since de Blasio took office in January. His predecessor Michael Bloomberg was a major supporter of the arts during his 12-year tenure, spending around $3bn on cultural projects and often using money from his private foundation to bankroll arts initiatives when public funding came up short. Kate Levin, the cultural affairs commissioner under Bloomberg, left with the former mayor to join his new urban development consultancy Bloomberg Associates, and in February took up a one-year fellowship at the National Center for Arts Research at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

De Blasio’s appointment fits in with the mayor’s socially engaged ethos. In November, Finkelpearl unveiled a two-year, $65m renovation of the Queens Museum, which doubled its size and added 50,000 sq. ft of classrooms, artist studios and exhibition space. During his 12 years as director, he focused on expanding the museum’s ties to locals and developed a reputation as a savvy administrator with progressive ideals. He hired community organisers to work alongside curators and offered free multilingual courses in graphic design, photography and video editing to the borough’s adult immigrants.

He also has a background in city government. From 1990 to 1996, Finkelpearl served as the director of New York’s percent for art programme, which funnels one percent of city-funded construction projects into public art.

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