Will Laurie Cumbo be Brooklyn’s “Arts Councilwoman”?

(Photo by Reem Nasr)
(Photo by Reem Nasr)

by Reem Nasr

When Kathleen Hayek first learned that her friend Laurie Cumbo was going to run for City Council, her initial question was: How would Cumbo’s background in arts and culture translate politically?

“I asked her what she thinks makes her qualified to deal with tough issues, like affordable housing, because I know that a lot of people will be asking that of her,” said Hayek, a longtime resident of Fort Greene and local artist and community activist.

Cumbo stands at the intersection of arts and politics. With one foot in each world – she incorporated the arts into her political platform with the goal of developing the local economy through cultural tourism – there is a chance she will be labeled the “arts councilwoman.”

A first-time politician, Cumbo defeated four rivals in September’s Democratic primary and ran unopposed in the Nov. 5 general election for City Council representing Brooklyn’s 35th district, which includes Clinton Hill, Fort Greene, and parts of Crown Heights, Prospect Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant.

She is well-anchored in Fort Greene and Clinton Hill. In 1999, she founded the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts on Hansen Place to explore the artistic expressions of the African Diaspora.

“I have a much different perspective than most elected officials on how the arts can bridge culture and community,” Cumbo said in an email. “By making artistic creation, performance, and education accessible, we will create the foundation for bringing people together to solve our more pressing societal matters, from the lack of affordable housing to jobs to gun violence.”

Piruz Partow, the executive director at the Brooklyn Music School, said he hopes Cumbo will be the “arts councilwoman.”

“I am confident that Cumbo will implement her platform by creating not just high art, but using the arts as a way to build and grow a community.”

Hayek added that Cumbo has the universal skills all politicians need.

“She developed the skill sets when setting up MoCADA and those skills are involved in representing our district,” Hayek said. “She has the ability to negotiate, listen and troubleshoot – things every politician should have, irrespective of background.”

Ede Fox ran unsuccessfully against Cumbo for the City Council seat during the primaries. Her platform focused on economic development, housing and jobs, and she said she hoped that Cumbo would take advantage of her knowledge in addressing them.

“Economic development and job creation are very difficult and they require many different things,” Fox said. “So I really think that is something she should work on collaboratively with people in this community who have experience doing those sorts of things.”

Raul Rothblatt worked on Fox’s campaign and is also a local musician and arts manager. He said that while Cumbo’s arts background looks good on a resume, it doesn’t necessarily translate to savvy politics.

“There are a lot of difficult questions to ask about hospitals and NYCHA and being in the arts has little to do with the things that people really get bothered about,” Rothblatt said. “Her arts background is nice for a certain group of people, but it has to be balanced with the real concerns that are affecting people’s lives.”

He added that as a local arts performer, he knows that not all of the arts community members support Cumbo’s vision.

Robert Perris, district manager of Brooklyn’s Community Board 2, advised Cumbo to leverage her knowledge of the arts without being one-dimensional.

“Don’t be the arts council member candidate, but on the other hand don’t disavow it,” Perris said. “You’re going to need to be a more well-rounded council member than just the arts, but there’s really nothing wrong with being the most knowledgeable person and potentially a committee chair on cultural affairs.”