A Museum for Everyone

I dream of art museums. That is to say, my dreams are often set in museums. In these dreams, I wander through half-remembered or wholly created galleries filled with the treasures of lifetimes. I can get as close as an eyelash away from a statue by Louise Bourgeois, or examine the way Christopher Wool lays down paint. But museums should be much more than caves of splendor or treasure rooms—they need to be places that function within the context of art and community. Museums simultaneously house the permanent and the transitory, and within this physical structure, they must grapple with a legacy steeped—ideologically, at least—in conquest and plunder.

The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. has a roomful of Edgar Degas’ bronzes, two of which are renditions of the original 28 “Little Dancer of Fourteen Years,” cast after the artist’s death. For students, art historians and artists, the chance to get a really good look at the gestures and, therefore, decisions made, is a gift. However, museums do not exist in a moral or cultural vacuum. The works were gifted to the museum by Paul Mellon, whose money came from the banking dynasty established by his grandfather, Judge Thomas Mellon. Paul raced and bred renowned thoroughbreds.

In 1909, Italian Futurist poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti published a cheeky manifesto that included, among other notable gems of wisdom, an exhortation to “demolish museums.” In 1995, writer Carol Duncan likened the museum to a ceremonial monument, a place for ritual. More recently, the conversation about the museum’s role has taken center stage in discourse across disciplines and regions.

This concern—about how a museum functions today—is of paramount importance to Adam Levine, Ph.D., the George W. & Kathleen I. Gibbs Director & Chief Executive Officer of The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens. Levine took the helm of the Northeast Florida landmark institution about five months ago. “The most important thing is to think about representation in the collection,” Levine told Folio Weekly, while we discussed his approach and interests within the Cummer’s ideological framework.

Representation has been one of the challenges facing contemporary museums. Recently, the Cummer acquired Magnetic Fields, a work by Mildred Thompson (1936-2003). Thompson was interested in science, specifically string theory, and often worked across media and ideas. She lived in Europe for more than a decade during the late 1950s and into the early ’70s, due to her frustration of being an African-American artist in the United States. In a 1977 interview with The Washington Post, the artist said, “I didn’t trust America.”

Thompson wasn’t spurious in her societal mistrust. Within the fine art world subset, the bulk of the artists represented in museum collections across the nation are white males, reinforcing a view of the world that isn’t faceted or even accurate (a corollary example might be this year’s Whitney Biennial, with its myopic focus on coastal artists). Often, too, museum staff are predominately Caucasian. When I mentioned this to Levine, in the Cummer context, he replied, “The Cummer Museum is not a Caucasian institution. The Cummer Museum is, by its charter, an institution for all of Jacksonville. It is for everyone.”

He then continued, referring to employees, “The staff I inherited is predominantly Caucasian, and already we have tweaked [human resources] processes to make sure we are more inclusive in our hiring practices. We are looking actively at our processes and procedures to reduce bias, including in places where it may not be conscious. And to that end, the entire team is going through unconscious bias training. We are taking tangible steps. This is a top priority of mine.”

It’s an answer that reflects careful consideration and method. And that seems to be how the director moves. One of Levine’s first programs is to build on the success of the recent show Augusta Savage: Renaissance Woman. This exhibition, curated by Jefreen Hayes, Ph.D., reframed the legacy of the Harlem Renaissance artist and sculptor. A traveling exhibition, it continues to earn accolades on the road. Back at the Cummer, it has facilitated a new partnership.

“Probably the most exciting thing we have going on is the Family 2 Family membership,” Levine said. Family 2 Family enlarges on the existing relationship between Duval County Public Schools (DCPS) and the museum. In 2018, thousands of students visited the museum, including 800 fourth-graders. Because of the interaction the students had with the Augusta Savage exhibit, Levine set a goal for the museum to help institute 5,500 memberships to provide all current fourth-grade students with a free family membership to the Cummer. The program works like this: For every $100 donated to the museum as a part of a membership purchase or upgrade through Sept. 30, the museum will give a membership to the family of one Duval County Public Schools fourth-grader. Easy, accessible activism.

With the cost barrier removed, the hope is that multiple families will choose to visit multiple times. Again and again, the value of the arts has been cited and publicized in communities across America, even as the arts are among the first line items to go in a budget. “The arts offer a means for exploring one’s world; art is a way to communicate and understand beyond words,” said Laurie Hoppock, DCPS supervisor of the arts. “Over the years, every year, the Cummer has found a way to support our students … They have been an example of not being deterred and they act as a model.”

Levine noted, “There are ways to think about access and to think about providing access without having to rely on government funding. But it is, of course, my hope that culture is prioritized by or elected officials in the same way that it’s prioritized by me.”

On June 14, French Moderns: Monet to Matisse, 1850-1950 opened. The show, which is organized by subject and chronology, takes a look at some of the best-known names in art history, along with several fascinating but lesser-recognized artists, like Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1827-’75).

Carpeaux’s sculpture Woman of African Descent is a study of a figurative group representing the four continents, designed for the Observatory Fountain in Paris. Created in 1868, the bust shows a woman looking off into the distance, perhaps at a different shore. She is bound with rope, and an inscription at the base of the sculpture reads pourquoi naître esclave? (“Why born a slave?”).

“Modernism as a philosophy, as an approach to the world, can be distilled into ‘make it new,’” said Levine, discussing the aesthetic implications of Modernist thought. Levine links this artistic impulse with post-Enlightenment thinking, encapsulated in the question: “What if we were critical of our own sense of certainty?”

The director pointed out that many of the artists included in the show led international lives, moving back and forth between several nations for various reasons. “Globalism isn’t new,” he remarked. But more than the overarching motifs that inform (and have shaped) our present moment, it seems that the director is most interested in the manner in which the art objects intersect with history. Claude Monet’s Rising Tide at Pourville (1882), the work that opens the show, isn’t interesting just because the painter plays with perspective and mark-making (and foreshadows his famous cathedral and haystack works), but because it once belonged to the suffragette Louisine Havemeyer, who was jailed for her beliefs and endured a hunger strike.

Then there’s Portrait of W.S. Davenpor by Kees van Dongen. The painting is a larger-than-life rendering of the eponymous figure. In this show, one might not give him a second look, save for the lurid green highlights around his eyes. Yet, when Levine pointed out the flash of red near the jacket’s lapel—the Légion d’honneur, it turns out, awarded to the dentist for performing facial reconstructive surgery on French soldiers after World War I—it is a thrilling, aching, we-are-all-flesh, Flanders Fields moment.

There are also a few treats for close readers of art history: an Édouard Vuillard, a Jean Hélion and a Raoul Dufy, among other memorable paintings.

“The Cummer is Jacksonville’s museum. It is Northeast Florida’s museum,” Levine said. “Everyone is a stakeholder in this institution. We exist for anyone in this community, and the question about how we think holistically—making it ever better for everyone—is a part of my job.”

When asked what that looks like, Levine situated his answer within the objects themselves: “I am open to making sure that we are the most vibrant arts institution possible. We will be focusing relentlessly on the highest quality works of art.” It’s a return to the beginning of our conversation, when we were discussing the acquisition strategy. “Buy early or buy against the market.”

The museum is currently in the process of generating a strategic plan, scheduled to be completed by the end of this fiscal year. Its implementation will begin to govern the Cummer’s activities in October 2019. “I suspect your readership would not be thrilled if I came in and within four months knew all the answers. I’m still learning as I go, and part of being judicious and making sure you’re rolling out sustainable solutions for the organization is to do pilots. You can pay attention to some of the things we’re doing and probably get a sense of how we’re thinking,” he said with a smile.

Finally, we touched on his personal aesthetic focus. Adam Levine said that he’s an omnivore, with Romanist overtones, but that the first acquisition under his watch is an abstract expressionist piece. “A focus on quality reflects the diversity of humanity. One of the nicest things about a focus is that it is inherently representative, because quality is equally distributed across time and space. Quality doesn’t care if you have an MFA, quality doesn’t care if you’re from 16th-century Nigeria, modern-day Nigeria, from 21st-century Florida, or third millennium BC China. A great Shang bronze and a great Mildred Thompson exist at the same level.”