by Erin Thursby
This year, the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens will have been open for half a century. Jacksonville is certainly culturally richer for this long association. The beginnings of the organization were the result one generous lady: Ninah Cummer.
The Cummer family moved to Jacksonville at the end of the 1800s. In the early 20th century their lumber company was easily one of the largest employers in Jacksonville. Ninah, her husband Arthur and several members of his family lived on the land and surrounding area where the museum stands today. The family’s involvement with local charities established a deep connection to the First Coast Community.
It was Ninah’s twin passions for art and gardening, though, which led to Cummer Museum we have today.
Ninah, like the other Cummer ladies on the land, had garden space. “The women of the younger generation in particular developed a keen interest in landscape gardening that was part of a national trend toward awareness of ornamental gardens as enhancements to the home,” explains Judith Tankard in Legacy in Bloom, a 2009 book on the Cummer gardens. Ninah’s interest turned into a passion, and she learned much about gardening in our particular clime from books, but also from putting unlikely plants in the ground to see what would grow. She became knowledgeable enough that she was tapped for lectures on horticulture at various garden clubs. While her husband Arthur mostly wrote the checks for her extravagant gardening, he did get something out of it: a putting green right on the river.
Arthur wasn’t into horticulture unless it involved golf clubs, but he did share his wife’s interest in art. Together they accumulated the pieces that later became the foundation of the Cummer Museum’s collection. After Arthur’s death in 1943, Ninah became more focused on collecting art. She also started planning on bequeathing her collection and the land to become an art museum and garden open to the public. That collection of 60 impressive pieces has today become 5,000 pieces in the Cummer Museum’s collection.
The Cummer Mansion, where Ninah lived, was knocked down to accommodate the museum. This wasn’t a tragedy as the museum was her dream, but it was a necessity. A single room of the museum is devoted to replicating a room in Ninah’s house. That room, which will open after restoration later this month, is named the Tudor Room, after the Tudor style of the former mansion. Wood paneling, antiques, some art and furnishings were taken from the original room, Ninah’s living room before the building was demolished, and installed in the replica room.
Twenty-one paintings of note were hanging in her living room when Ninah was alive. She wrote to a friend about the space: “There are those who feel that that room might well be considered a little gallery.” But Ninah didn’t feel the same way, writing: “I love every inch of it, not alone because of its beauty but because of its many happy associations and the good times experienced there with good friends– with dear friends no longer here. So to me it is my livingroom [sic] and always will be so. There is nothing forbidding about it and I hope to always keep it in exactly that status.”
With the 50th Anniversary of the museum, this is the year to get to know Ninah Cummer through her legacy. For more on the Cummers and the museum’s history, see the interactive timeline on the museum’s website, www.cummer50.org.
What’s Coming Up this Year at the Cummer
January 24- April 24 A Genius for Place: American Landscapes of the Country Place Era Large scale photographs of incredible gardens, often designed by the same landscape artists who had a hand in the Cummer garden’s design.
March 14-19 The Cummer’s Annual Garden Week Celebration
May 20- August 14 On the Silk Road and the High Seas: Chinese Ceramics, Culture, and Commerce From the Norton Museum of Art, this exhibition tells the story of the Silk Road, as well as how that influenced the development of Meissen porcelain. They will also be taking the time to celebrate the museum’s own collection of Meissen porcelain, which was one of the first collections donated to the museum in 1965 by Ralph Wark.
In Summer the museum will get local with The Artful Neighborhood: The Riverside Avondale Preservation Society and One in Three: Solve our Dropout Crisis. By the fall, they will unveil their recently acquired and restored works of Eugene Savage, who depicted the Seminole tribes in the 1930s, with a Surrealist, Art Deco vibe. You’ll also want to look for a play about Ninah Cummer this summer at the museum, written by local playwright Barbara Colaciello Williams. (It will also be performed at Players by the Sea).