A Song of HOPE

Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.

­—“Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” James Weldon Johnson


A vibrant arts culture is one of the hallmarks of a great and thriving metropolis.

In sprawled-out and deceptively diverse Northeast Florida, the arts have long played second fiddle to pecuniary interests. Historically, if a measure might generate jobs, we’d fund it to a fault; if a project would create beauty, we’d smile indulgently and toss a few coins into the hypothetical hat; if something challenged our conventions or critiqued our culture, we’d clam up and shrink away, fearful of reflections that are not good and perfect and ideal.

That’s why, when people think of Northeast Floridian art, many probably envision paintings of a windswept seascape at dawn, all pinks and blues and herons and dolphins — or perhaps a landscape of live oaks draped with Spanish moss behind which a blushing beauty waves from the doorway of a charming cottage, white sheets billowing gently on a nearby clothesline.

But all that’s starting to change.

Last week, I had the honor of sitting down with a lady whose resignation letter had been the adieu heard ’round the region just 24 hours earlier: Hope McMath, who, after 22 years with the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens, seven of those years as director, has left the museum.

With short hair colored by time and unaltered by stylists, a radiating life force, and a serene air, McMath was refreshingly untouched by the controversy that had recently surrounded her. For more than an hour, we sipped cocktails that were works of art in their own rights — the merging of art and cuisine is a local trend that we both wholeheartedly embrace — and spoke of the city that has been her home almost steadily since infancy, the job that has been her life’s work to date, and the arts that continue to fuel her passion.

In her tenure as director, McMath has blazed a trail of inclusiveness and multiculturalism that many felt — and some still feel — is lacking in the region’s mainstream artistic community. She’s brought beauty aplenty to the museum, but also put on exhibits that asked tough questions about who we are, where we come from and what we believe, such as the recent exhibit titled LIFT: Contemporary Expressions of the African American Experience, which earned the museum and McMath acclaim and criticism alike (mostly acclaim).

The mere fact that any would criticize such a moving and ambitious exhibit has given ammunition to those who feel that progress moves too slowly in this corner of the Sunshine State, that we lag too far behind our Floridian brethren. Without a doubt, the struggle between ideas old and new is indelibly linked to our regional identity. It is also precisely the fuel that can inspire great art.

McMath agreed that the true diversity of the region is still not adequately represented in the arts, but said that she’s seen much progress over the past two decades. She also noted, as have others, that some of the most memorable works to spring from Northeast Florida and the world over have emerged from shadowy corners that can be hard for us to look into, the places where our ugliest selves live, our racism, our hatred, our bitterness.

Take the song from which the exhibit borrows its name, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” by James Weldon Johnson. The 116-year-old lyrics speak of struggling through the gloom, fighting through the murk and the bitter tears to victory, to the light. That beautiful poem, often referred to as “The Black National Anthem,” is a rallying cry to which no words would be devoted but for the hardships and bloodshed that inspired them.

Fifty years after a vote stitched a series of suburbs and a small city together to create what was then the nation’s largest megalopolis, Jacksonville’s arts community is finally showing signs of coming together. Though she laments the lack of a gallery system that would provide the space and support that a prosperous arts community needs, McMath believes there is even more artistic vibrancy coming in the not-too-distant future. She pointed to recent strides that have opened up a world of opportunity for artists, such as CoRK Arts District opening, the work that the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville is doing, increased funding of art in public places, and the blossoming crop of local artists who are beautifying and challenging this region with brush, palette, chisel, can, textile, mortar, spirit and grit.

As she headed off to an event, McMath seemed at peace with the past, accepting of the present and eager for the future, which, happily, includes Northeast Florida.

“I feel like I stayed [at the Cummer] just long enough,” she said.