Until January, the destruction Hurricane Irma wrought in Jacksonville’s downtown areas was still being felt at the Cummer Museum’s historic Gardens. Now eighteen months after the storm, the Riverside Avenue gardens have recently reopened to the public, with a full Cummer Garden re-launch planned for July.
“When people ask what’s the greatest work of art in the collection, my answer is the gardens, which are all made by these nationally, historically important landscape architects, ” says Adam Levine, Director and CEO of the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens. “I bring that up only to say if someone were to walk into an art museum and damage a piece of art, the expectation would be that it would be fixed right away.”
And so when Levine started his new role in early January, he and his team mobilized quickly to get a contractor working onsite. Now the reconstruction plan for the Gardens is not only on time and fully funded, but under budget.
“I think that’s important, not only because it shows our commitment to our historic resources, but I hope it’s a metaphor for the direction the Cummer will go.”
Levine moved to Jacksonville just four months ago following his time as deputy director at the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio, and previously in New York as a collections management assistant at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
In a short period of time, the now Atlantic Beach resident has made it a priority for the museum to not only become a more active figure in Jacksonville’s cultural landscape, but an authentic reflection of the community it serves.
“I’ve heard the Cummer referred to many times as a gem. But it’s a gem that needs a little bit of polish,” he says. “It needs a little bit of love; it needs some investment in the core infrastructure that makes it a gem. And so we’re gonna build the Cummer as the best asset it can be for this community.”
The civic pride and palpable ambition in Jacksonville is contagious. And Levine sees a correlation between great cities and the quality of their museums. Essentially, as Jacksonville continues to rise and develop into a unique definition of modern success, its museum should manifest itself in a similar way.
But what does success look like for a museum in Jacksonville? Levine posits that the role of the Cummer should be to provide high quality in anything it offers, though that quality should also be accessible.
“There’s no tension between quality and access because quality is fundamentally egalitarian; its fundamentally democratic,” he says. “Quality exists from ancient Egypt to 17th-century sub-Saharan Africa, to 21st-century European contemporary painting. Across time and space you find quality and its sort of our job to seek it out and make it accessible.”
Recently, that accessibility comes in the form of a community-focused initiative in the Cummer’s new family membership campaign. For every new family membership, a second membership will be gifted to a fourth grade family, which stems from the Cummer’s Augusta Savage exhibition and Duval County Public School’s fourth grade Florida history curriculum.
It feels like the start of something bigger. And for Levine, the start of his tenure has been defined by bold, tangible activity and a desire to change perceptions about what the Cummer Museum can be for Jacksonville and its communities.
“We’re an art museum. But we’re a civic asset, a civic resource and we want to make ourselves as broadly available. It’s up to us, but it’s also up to the community to support that,” he says. “We’ve translated potential energy into kinetic energy, and we’ve got a long way to go, but it feels like we’re generating momentum and enthusiasm.”