Cultural institution visits–a paper in a few parts


The Cummer Museum is located, quite literally, on the banks of the St. Johns River in the historic Riverside neighborhood of Jacksonville; the Riverside Arts Market (held on Saturdays from April through December under the Fuller Warren Bridge) is just down the street. Rather fittingly, the Garden Club of Jacksonville, which was founded by the main namesake of the museum, Ninah Cummer, is located next door. Both of these neighbors nicely echo the character of the museum and of the broader community in which it is situated. The remainder of the neighborhood is composed of residential and commercial buildings that preserve an interesting mixture of architectural styles and history, due to a strong preservation organization that operates in the area (Riverside Avondale Preservation, Inc.).

The museum itself echoes the character of the type of preservation that is evident in the rest of the area, which is to say that while the history is retained, it doesn’t function as an outdated structure. Instead, the building was constructed on the site of Arthur and Ninah Cummer’s home, which was donated for demolition and subsequent building of a museum space capable of housing a collection of priceless works (Cummer Museum, 2011, Museum History). The building was completed in 1961 and while it replaced a historic home with a more modern building, much of the feel of the original home, grounds, and namesake is still evident. In fact, while the focus is on the art collection, the attention to the history of the institution and the preservation of the original gardens give it an atmosphere that is unlike many other museums. I’ll expound on this point in greater detail later, but part of the reason that this museum fits seamlessly into the surroundings is this very awareness of a balance between progress and heritage that is obviously significant to the rest of the community.

As far as I can tell there are many partnerships between the Cummer and surrounding organizations, but none that explicitly involve area libraries of any type. Perusing the website and brochures available at the museum yielded no mentions of library partnership; however, a non-circulating library of 10,000 resources related to the collections and traveling exhibitions is available onsite, so there is a library presence in the space. When I spoke with an educator that was staffing the desk in the hands-on gallery space and inquired about museum partnerships the focus was definitely on collaborations with schools in the county and on the programs co-sponsored by VSA Arts. In the case of the former, the Duval County School District provides admission and bus costs for students at arts magnet schools to visit the site each year; this program is a viable opportunity for students to tour and make art at the museum, however the scope of the partnership has steadily decreased over the past few years due to budget issues. The Weaver Academy of Art at the Cummer was started in 2007 to fund visits for kids from underserved schools and is supported primarily by Jaguar owners Wayne and Delores Barr Weaver (Cummer Museum, 2011, Weaver Academy). That program involves teacher training, monthly museum staff visits to the participating schools for instruction and art making, followed by two or more school visits to the museum.

VSA Arts forms the other major educational partnership, with the Jacksonville VSA Arts chapter based out of the Cummer. This partnership equates to a museum that offers a tremendous amount of specialized programming for adults and children with disabilities. This includes touchable sculpture and garden collections; Women of Vision, a monthly program of study in art history and studio time for visually impaired adult women; educational resources and specialized tours for ESE students; teacher in-service and lesson plans for special needs classes; and a partnership with St. Vincent’s Healthcare that offers art therapy workshops to children with cancer (Cummer Museum, 2011, Accessibility). In addition to the official programs offered in partnership with VSA Arts, I think the Cummer benefits tremendously from their expertise. They have signs proclaiming that the galleries and gardens are all wheelchair accessible, but their attention to accessibility details is much greater than that. They have label text that adheres to guidelines for the visually impaired regarding contrast, size, and color and have large amounts of floor space and open layouts for easily maneuvering wheelchairs (or strollers). More significantly, however, I noticed that any objects in vitrines where placed low enough for easy viewing and that they have avoided laying flat objects in the cases or placing label text or object numbers on flat surfaces, which is common. Overall, it felt like the layouts were considerate without feeling overly fussy and that the spaces would be inviting to a variety of visitors.

The Cummer also seems to care deeply about engaging with the community, and the last partnership I will mention clearly demonstrates this. They are collaborating with the Riverside Avondale Preservation organization to create an exhibition, set to open in mid-June, about the historic community in which the museum resides. The Neighborhood as Art: Celebrating the Riverside Avondale Area exhibition is going to feature contemporary works in media such as painting, sculpture, and video created by local artists and placed near historic photos of the Riverside and Avondale neighborhoods. The preservation organization is providing the photos to act as a counterpoint to the contemporary interpretations and memory-laced accounts of the neighborhood (Cummer Museum, 2011, Events). This exhibition should fit nicely with the goals of the preservation organization, which are to preserve and enliven the neighborhood so it remains an active community; the Cummer seeks to do the same by preserving its own history as part of this community. Carr (2006) notes that “throughout the museum, apart from the identification of objects and their contexts, it may be useful to emphasize the interwoven continuities of things, the threads and ribbons that interlace artifacts with their human observers” (p. 115). This exhibition and partnership seeks to present thoughtful interpretations of the neighborhood and to capture something more than the collection of buildings that comprise the physical location— it should help to record the intangible aspects of a living, breathing, evolving community.

The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens is accredited by the American Association of Museums. Also, though not an indication of accreditation, the museum was added to the National Register of Historic Places in January, 2010, in recognition of the importance of the gardens.

The museum has a number of publications, ranging from a general monthly newsletter and a newsletter geared toward art education (Connections) to gallery guides and interactive family guides that accompany specific exhibitions, full-scale scholarly books, and podcasts and interactive web-based timelines. The selection of printed books is small, but extremely appealing. For starters, they have a postcard-sized book that celebrates the 50th anniversary of the museum (this year) by showcasing the 50 favorite images from the collection as voted upon by museum staff, docents, and the visiting public. This book is sleek, affordable, and showcases the breadth of the permanent collections as well as the care the museum places on listening to the opinions of their visitors. There is also a general museum handbook and several publications specifically about the gardens. The one I found most impressive, however, was a book written by Urich Pietsch, a German scholar and curator of Meissen porcelain, that showcases around 700 pieces from the Cummer collection. This book was published in 2011 and accompanies the new installation of the Cummer’s Meissen collection (although not an exhibition catalog), which is the most significant collection of these works in the United States. They have several of these books set out near extremely comfortable chairs in the gallery space, which I thought was actually quite conducive to reading large portions of the text. This book was a great contrast to the many museum highlights publications that focus on simple overviews of the works and definitely shows that the museum is interested in targeting serious scholars by assisting and supporting research and compilation of this book.

Adult Programs:
The Cummer Museum has a number of programs for adults to engage with the collections (ranging from traditional to innovative) and incorporates museum history, gardens, and art history into its offerings. They also seem to effectively combine opportunities for socializing with educational endeavors, which indicates that they understand the importance of making learning opportunities fun in order to attract the largest possible audience. For instance, on the third Wednesday and Thursday of each month they offer a program targeted toward seniors (although not limited to this demographic) that combines a gallery talk with a tea party. Having this social function allows visitors to relax and also encourages discussion about the collections and lecture. The museum also offers frequent themed and general tours, adult art making classes, formal lectures, and events such as concerts and plays that are intended to get people engaging with the space in unexpected ways. The partnership with VSA Arts also includes a number of programs targeted to adults with a range of disabilities, such as alternative tours intended for people with vision impairment that can also be combined with adaptive studio experiences that include specialized equipment to help people with mobility issues engage in creative expression.


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