With Final Gracie Mansion Show, First Lady Aims to Secure Arts Legacy

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With two years left in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s term, it will be some time before the city’s first family has to pack up and head back to their three-story rowhouse in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

But Chirlane McCray, the mayor’s wife, is keenly aware of the time remaining — “696 days,” she said in a recent interview — and of the legacy she wants to leave, at least as far as art and culture are concerned.

A big part of that effort has been the exhibitions she has spearheaded at Gracie Mansion, the fourth and last of which opens on Feb. 24: “Catalyst: Art and Social Justice.” Like her other shows in the mayoral residence on East End Avenue, this one emphasizes equity and inclusion, the general priorities of the mayor and first lady.

“When we came here and were surrounded by all these portraits; it wasn’t long before I said, ‘Where are we?’” Ms. McCray said over strong ginger tea in the mansion’s formal dining room. “‘How do we fit in here? Where are the people we know? Where are the people of our city and what do we need to do to really be the people’s house?’”

“Catalyst” looks at transformational New York moments from 1965 to the present, including the civil rights movement, the women’s movement and AIDS activism.

“We can’t do everything,” Ms. McCray said. “But I think we’ve done our best to incorporate as much as we can so that people get to see the variety of the activism in our city.”

The nearly 80 works in the exhibition include Martine Fougeron’s portraits of trade workers in the South Bronx (from auto-parts makers to cake-bakers), Diana Davies’s photographs of LGBTQ+ activism and Tania Bruguera’s project on undocumented immigrants.

The more than 50 artists in the show — including Nari Ward, Glenn Ligon and Lorna Simpson — have strong connections to the city. “I want to make sure we have artists from every borough,” Ms. McCray said. “We want this to be as inclusive an exhibit as possible.”

That emphasis initially caused concern that the administration would neglect or shortchange larger institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Lincoln Center in favor of smaller ones outside Manhattan.

The city, for example, has given bigger funding increases to smaller cultural organizations than to larger institutions to try to level the playing field.

But Ms. McCray said there is more than enough to go around. “We have not put any institution in jeopardy,” she said. “This is a wealthy city and there is no reason why we need to concentrate on anyone. There are no losers here.”

Indeed, the pie has increased overall by more than 35 percent, to about $212 million for fiscal year 2020, up from about $156 million for 2014.

“Despite record funding for culture these last few years, there hasn’t been the sense that the arts are a real passion for the mayor, so it’s a net positive that Chirlane seems to care about these issues,” said Jimmy Van Bramer of Queens, chairman of the City Council committee overseeing cultural affairs. “She’s an influential behind-the-scenes player when it comes to fighting for the arts.”

Small arts organizations said there is still progress to be made. “There is a lack of attention and equitable funding to not-for-profit arts and cultural organizations of color,” said Marta Moreno Vega, founder of the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute.

Ms. McCray has taken her share of heat in the cultural sphere. Some blame her for the abrupt departure last fall of Tom Finkelpearl, the former cultural affairs commissioner. He resigned amid battles over the city’s rethinking of public monuments to honor more women and people of color, an effort led largely by Ms. McCray’s She Built NYC commission.

“Tom and I got along great,” was all she would say, adding, “From everything I know, it was a mutually agreed upon departure.”

Mr. Finkelpearl said he had a “warm relationship” with Ms. McCray, “who is a strong advocate for arts and culture.”

While the actor Chazz Palminteri called Ms. McCray a “racist” after the city decided not to devote one of its first statues to Mother Cabrini, a patron saint of immigrants, Ms. McCray said “It has nothing to do with her not being worthy.”

That discussion became conflated with her efforts to honor “people who were underrepresented, who had no recognition whatsoever,” she said.

Given the strong feelings around the issues, however, Ms. McCray acknowledged that the public process could use improvement. (Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who often clashes with the mayor, said the state would commission a Mother Cabrini statue.)

“We need a more coordinated process for statues,” Ms. McCray said. “I’ve been working on that.”

Both the first lady and the mayor have also been criticized for not attending as many cultural events as Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg did. While Ms. McCray has attended the occasional gala — namely at the Studio Museum of Harlem and Carnegie Hall — she said, “that has not been the top priority on my list — to be seen at things.”

“I’m not that kind of person — I don’t like getting all dressed up,” she added. “I work really hard, so at the end of the day I like to just sit with my husband and watch TV.”

Ms. McCray has faced questions over her stewardship of ThriveNYC, a nearly $1 billion plan that addresses mental illness in the city. The initiative, now in its fifth year, includes dozens of programs across numerous agencies; critics, including some City Council members, have questioned its performance and its spending.

At the same time, Ms. McCray said she is proud of what they have accomplished with CreateNYC, the city’s cultural plan — which linked city funding to diversity requirements — and the Gracie Mansion exhibitions, which helped draw 40,000 visitors to the residence last year, up from 25,000 in 2016.

Jessica Bell Brown, an art historian who curated “Catalyst,” said Ms. McCray “has shown interest in art as a bridge for thinking about social justice — the way in which artists can offer a window into the most important issues of our time.” Ms. Brown also was curator of the first lady’s show, “She Persists: A Century of Women Artists in New York,” which focused on female and women-identified creators.

Ms. McCray said she was particularly moved by the appreciation of the artists in “She Persists,” some of whom have had “little or no recognition.”

Thelma Golden, director and chief curator of the Studio Museum, said Ms. McCray’s installations have attracted new audiences and “created the opportunity for a broad range of artists, artistic practices and different visions to be on view.”

Having grown up playing piano, dancing, singing in the school chorus and writing poetry, Ms. McCray — who also oversees the city’s mental health initiative — said she keenly appreciates the value of culture. “I don’t think I’d be alive today if it weren’t for art,” she said. “Everyone needs a healthy way to channel their emotions.”

“Having art,” she added, “makes it possible to live without other things.”

Looking ahead, Ms. McCray has acknowledged that she may consider seeking public office. “It could be something in Albany, it could be Brooklyn, local, citywide,” she told The New York Times in 2018.

One thing her experience in Gracie Mansion has given Ms. McCray is the desire to live with more art when she returns to Brooklyn and to expand beyond paintings “by Dante and Chiara de Blasio” (their now-grown children).

“I can’t afford a Mickalene Thomas; I can’t afford Faith Ringgold,” she continued, “but I’ll do what I can.”

Preceding “She Persists” was the 2015 exhibition “Windows on the City: Looking Out at Gracie’s New York,” which featured 18th-century art, and “New York 1942,” in 2017, which concentrated on Fiorello La Guardia, the first mayor to live at Gracie Mansion.

While the shows are temporary, Ms. McCray said she hopes she has opened a discussion about what art and which artists belong in the mayoral residence. “Whoever lives here next, I challenge them to do more and do better,” she said.

“Our gift — or our legacy,” she added, “is that we showed what is possible.”


Catalyst: Art and Social Justice

Public tours begin Feb. 24 through Aug. 25. Gracie Mansion, East 88th Street and East End Avenue, Manhattan; To reserve an individual or school group tour of Gracie Mansion: 212-676-3060, nyc.gov/gracie tours.

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