Cumbo founded the Museum of Contemporary African Diaspora Arts (MoCADA) in 1999 and later served as its executive director until she was elected to represent District 35, which includes Fort Greene where the museum is located.
The $1.4 million gift amounts to almost 25 percent of her total $5.8 million budget.
Cumbo was quoted in Capital New York defending her decision.
“This is an African diaspora art institution that is doing valuable vital work, that’s serving tens of thousands of people,” Cumbo is quoted as saying. “It’s the only African diaspora institution of its kind in the district that is serving a vast majority of people of color, and I don’t think it should close because I’m a council member.”
Council members often allocate money to institutions that they have been previously affiliated with, and there is nothing illegal about her decision.
That is not the issue, however, according to one resident and local activist who chose to remain anonymous.
“We know it’s not illegal, but it’s not passing the political smell test,” she said.
The real issue, the resident said, is the lack of transparency.
“Laurie Cumbo has been secretive in office,” she said. “She’s been in office for six months. People can’t get through to her. Calls and emails have gone unanswered; she doesn’t show up to community meetings. And then all of a sudden, she gives a gigantic award to an institution that has her name on it. That’s the problem. It’s the shroud of secrecy.”
Cumbo’s office did not respond to multiple calls for comment.
MoCADA Executive Director James Bartlett, however, said that the funding was entirely legal and completely deserved by the museum.
“At the end of the day, we’re an important arts institution in Laurie’s district, and unless someone can find a more worthy institution that deserves the funding more, then I don’t see why it’s a problem,” Bartlett said.
The museum is preparing for a $9 million expansion and relocation to a permanent home across from BAM Park at 48 Lafayette Ave., according to Bartlett. The money from Cumbo will help achieve that goal and allow for the expansion of the museum’s numerous programs both in and outside of the museum.
When the full funding is collected and MoCADA moves to its new location, it will become the first-ever permanent space for a black arts museum in Brooklyn.
So far MoCADA has collected $6.1 million of that $9 million goal, with the allocation from Cumbo matched by the Department of Cultural Affairs, and additional funding coming from other politicians and institutions.
Bartlett pointed out that Cumbo was not the first council member to allocate significant funds to the museum. In 2012, Letitia James, who then served in the City Council and is now the city’s public advocate, gave the museum $2.5 million, he said.
The concerned local resident responded, saying that giving money to the museum is “legitimate,” but that “there are tons and tons of smaller organizations for whom ten thousand dollars would be a lifeline,” and she was curious how, or if, these institutions were being funded.
“There is nothing exactly wrong with all of this, but there is nothing open or honest about it either,” she said.