the flog

So Hard to Say Goodbye

Adam Levine departs the Cummer


There are no guarantees in life, and fewer in art. However, it is a bit stunning to bear witness to Adam Levine’s departure, after only about a year, from the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens. Levine, PhD., came into the George and Kathleen Gibbs director and chief executive officer role with fanfare and hope. And truly, in the year of his leadership, the museum seems to have returned to life, literally and metaphorically. The doors have been thrown open. Levine seemed intent on creating a space for dialogue across the centuries, with a bend toward the ideas influencing our time.

The 2019 Impressionists show not only pulled out lesser-known artists, but it also sparked conversation around collectors and how collecting can be a political act. Two Damien Hirst works (on loan) are instructive exemplars of the artist’s fascination with death, especially Sanctitude (2007), which, with butterfly wings entrapped in house paint, defies the inherent grace and beauty of the insects and gestures instead to a sticky-gleeful acquisitive mentality that delights in literally pulling the wings off of (butter)flies. Paired with Black Sun (2004), the other Hirst piece on loan, which is a huge tondo work heaped high with resin-encrusted flies, the absurd death messaging is doubly underscored. Like a teenager who wears “black on the outside because they feel black on the inside,” with a side of, “What’s for dinner, mom?” it is funny to contemplate and shape an opinion against. In short, it's the good work of a museum.

Most recently, the museum opened Striking Power: Iconoclasm in Ancient Egypt, and the show (from the Brooklyn Museum of Art) is a fantastic exemplar of Levine’s interest in Classicism in a contemporary context. During his short opening remarks for the show, he stressed that this kind of destruction of symbols not only took place in the ancient world, but that it has corollaries throughout history and lessons for our own time. The show itself is thoughtful, with clearly presented statuary and reliefs that though damaged are exquisitely rendered. In their craftsmanship, they exist as an inherent argument for the extraordinariness of humankind. In turn, the deliberate destruction of the statuary highlights other true things about people, not the least if which is that political rage can transform into fear and ruination.

Levine leaves a city and art scene that continues to struggle to articulate a clear notion of itself—a city with energy and potential and crippling self-doubt. It’s equally heartbreaking and infuriating that he won’t be here to help us see and create ourselves. But perhaps the task of working in a community that squabbled over the definition of “shall” was too daunting a task even for this former Rhodes Scholar.

In April, Levine returns from where he came—the Toledo Museum of Art, now as its Edward Drummond and Florence Scott Libbey director.

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