Commitment to Representation Through Quality - 10 Questions with Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens Director and CEO, Adam Levine
"We want the Cummer to be a destination for anyone - we want this place to be an indispensable part of Jacksonville’s identity."
- Adam Levine -
The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens has been a staple in Jacksonville's arts and cultural landscape for as long as we can remember. Founded in 1961, its permanent collection includes over five thousand works of art dating from 2100 BCE to the twenty-first century. Known mostly for its European and American paintings as well as its considerable holdings of Meissen porcelain, the museum also has an award-winning education center, Art Connections, which boasts a number of interactive educational installations and serves underprivileged and special education students with its programs.
Since the appointment of Adam Levine, PhD. as Director and CEO in late 2018, The Cummer has been broadening its scope to include a lot of new and exciting programs and initiatives. We had the privilege to hear from Dr. Levine himself about these new developments, and ask a few questions about the future of the Cummer, why representation matters, and what changes are going on for and within the museum right now.
Thank you so much for taking the time, Dr. Levine. Please introduce yourself to the readers.
I was born and raised in New York City, moving only once and within the same building (!) before going to college. I went to Dartmouth College in New Hampshire before going to graduate school at the University of Oxford. While pursuing my Ph.D., I also had the opportunity to live and study at the Scuola Normale Superiore, in Pisa, Italy. I returned to the United States to take a job in the Greek & Roman department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, convinced I would never leave New York again. Two years later, I found myself in Toledo, Ohio for what I thought would be a two-year Andrew W. Mellon Foundation fellowship at the Toledo Museum of Art. Six years after that, I was still in Toledo as the Deputy Director, Curator of Ancient Art, and fiance to an amazing woman. I had no intention of leaving, and then the Cummer came calling, and the rest is history!
You've been the Director and CEO at the Cummer for nearly six months now. When you initially visited the Cummer prior to your appointment, you expressed being overwhelmed by the museum’s potential. Do you still feel the same way and how else do you plan to maximize that potential?
The more I learn about the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens, the more I am convinced that the institution has the potential to be one of the finest art museums in America. We are currently in the process of completing the first strategic plan of my tenure, and while we still have some work to do, the Jacksonville community should expect the Museum to focus on providing the highest quality artistic programs, continuing our commitment to increasing access by removing barriers to entry, and making the Museum a place where anyone feels comfortable and can have fun.
What is your strategic vision for the Museum?
If the pillars of quality, access, and fun described above are the supporting constructs that undergird our plan, then the vision is the outcome of that plan. That vision, I should say, is not mine per se. I have spent the better part of my first six months meeting with people in the community, listening, and trying to understand their wants and needs for Jacksonville, for the Cummer, and for arts and culture. My role, along with the team and in conjunction with the Board, is to distill and synthesize the amazing comments we’ve received into that vision you’re asking about. And while we still need to refine the details, the vision would look something like this: That at any given moment, the Museum and gardens would be full of people from every walk of life and every part of Jacksonville who are back at the Cummer (i.e., who are not first time visitors) engaging with world-class art, programs, and gardens. We want the Cummer to be a destination for anyone — we want this place to be an indispensable part of Jacksonville’s identity.
The Family 2 Family Membership Match program is a wonderful new rollout that you have implemented at the Cummer. Tell us about the program and what inspired the idea for it.
Family 2 Family is a membership match program undertaken in collaboration with Duval County Public Schools (DCPS). For every $100 of membership purchased, we will give a family membership away to one of the 5,500 DCPS fourth-grade families, many of which visited the Augusta Savage: Renaissance Woman exhibition as part of their Florida history curriculum. We are so grateful to DCPS and Superintendent Dr. Diana Greene for her support both in getting students to the Museum on field trips, and on this program to help reduce barriers to entry and make sure they come back.
The way the program works is really very simple. For every Family-level membership sold or $100 donated, we will give away one Family-level membership.
The idea was inspired by the social enterprise models pioneered by Toms Shoes and Warby Parker glasses. We felt that this community wanted to support the Cummer, but also wanted to support each other; we need your readers’ help to get each and every fourth-grader a membership. Please go to www.cummermuseum.org/f2f to participate!
How else is the Museum planning to fulfill its goal of being more accessible to the community?
Accessibility exists across a number of different dimensions, and we strive to think about each of them. We are having conversations actively about representation in our permanent collection galleries as well as in our exhibitions program, and audiences should expect to see elevated aesthetic experiences that represent the full diversity of the human experience (for example, you can read about our most recent acquisition below). We also asked the community when they wanted to attend the Museum in a survey and are adjusting our hours this summer to reflect people’s desired visiting habits (also see below on Friday nights). We are consciously thinking about other barriers to entry, like transportation and cost, and actively working to lower or remove these hurdles. For example, we raised $11,000 for scholarships to offset costs for summer camps at the Cummer, all of which were allocated in just a few weeks. Dozens of kids will get a chance to go to camp (and have pre/post care as needed) for free. Likewise, as a Blue Star Museums member, active-duty military personnel and their families can come to the Museum and gardens for free all summer. Finally, we are thinking about the experience of the Museum visit itself, and we are committed to making the Museum an inclusive and welcoming environment.
Another exciting development coming from the Cummer is the Summer Fridays programming. Tell us more about that.
This summer, we will be opening late on Friday nights. Each Friday from June 21 through September 6, the Museum will be open until 9:00 p.m. Admission to the permanent collection and the reopened, fully reconstructed gardens will be free. We will have music and games on the front lawn of the Museum, along with food trucks/stands, extended hours in the Café, and drinks available for purchase. We want the Museum to become part of Jacksonville’s Friday night — a destination for those who want to make an evening of it, or a stop along the way for those interested in staying Downtown or in Riverside. We could not have done this without the generous support of PNC Bank, and I am personally grateful to them for helping enable this great community opportunity.
The Museum recently acquired a work by Mildred Thompson — the first new addition to the permanent collection under your leadership. What appealed to you about this piece?
Our interest in Mildred Thompson’s Magnetic Fields can be understood through the same strategic framework outlined above. The work is an exceptional painting — it is literally of the highest quality. Thompson was a second-wave abstract expressionist, and AbEx is generally underrepresented in our collection. In addition to filling a hole, the balanced composition, tell-tale impasto, and sophisticated symbolism of the iconography all make this artwork a masterpiece in her ouevre. The work also brings into the collection an African-American female artist of the 20th/early 21st centuries, which demonstrates our commitment to representation through quality. That Thompson happens to be from Jacksonville also sends a powerful message to every student that visits the Museum, that with hard work and dedication your work, too, can be on this Museum’s walls. And finally, though the work is a serious meditation on the idea of invisible forces, its scale (it is eight feet wide), its energy, and its bright colors engage viewers — it is, after a fashion, “fun.”
Tell us about the French Moderns: Monet to Matisse exhibition. What can visitors expect?
Shows like French Moderns are made possible only with generous support, which in this instance was received from Barbara and William Harrell and Joan and Jim Van Vleck, both extraordinary couples, along with exhibition season support from Ameris Bank.
The exhibition, which is traveling from the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York, is an exciting display of important artists, many of whom are familiar to the general public. The show is beautiful, and provides our audience an opportunity to see styles of art that are not as well represented in our permanent collection, notably European Impressionism. But the exhibition is also an important reminder that the new and innovative styles that emerged in this period developed in the context of a rapidly changing society. Impressionism is but one innovation in the arc of “Modernism,” and the idea of the modern was profoundly influential. For example, none other than Augusta Savage was in Paris during exactly the same period that this show inspects (she was there from 1929-1931, squarely between 1850 and 1950). Her perseverance to overcome discrimination was precisely to expose herself to modernist artwork and modernist thinking. French Moderns is more than beautiful pictures: It is an interrogation of how art reflects the society out of which it emerges.
What have you learned about yourself through your work and your service in the arts and cultural sector?
A lot! I didn’t mention it above, but while I did study art history as an undergraduate, I also majored in applied math. It won’t surprise readers to know that I care a lot about metrics and measuring impacts. What I’ve learned though, to quote Albert Einstein in part, is that “not everything that can be counted counts.” The arts, I feel, have been put in a position to justify their value in other people’s terms. Do the arts generate economic impact? Of course they do (arts tourists spend twice as much as non-arts tourists, according to research by Americans for the Arts). Do the arts enhance educational outcomes? Absolutely (multimodal learning enhances literacy; the arts reduce absenteeism; etc.). While both these things are true — and many other things besides — neither explains, in my view, why the arts are important in-and-of-themselves. The arts bring people together, expose us to beauty and other cultures, and make for a more empathic and better world. These are values worth preserving, and the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens will strive to do just this for the Jacksonville community.
How do you define success in what you do?
If the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens can offer compelling, dynamic, and relevant programming, we will broaden and deepen our audience, generate significantly more and more diverse repeat visitors and supporters, and create an institution that will be a model for others. Ninah Cummer put success more succinctly: “To create a center of beauty and culture for all of Jacksonville.”
We'd like to thank Dr. Levine for his participation in this interview. We'd also like to thank you for reading.
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