George W. and Kathleen I. Gibbs Director and CEO,
The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens
Photograph by Tiffany Manning
What first catapulted your interest in art and its history? Is there an art medium, concept or movement that you are innately drawn to and/or collect?
I was fortunate to grow up in a household that valued trips to museums. I am originally from New York City, and on rainy days my parents would take me and my brother to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim, or the American Museum of Natural History. I’m not sure there was a ‘moment’ that catapulted my interest so much as consistent exposure caused me to think of art as an inextricable part of history.
I am interested in all art from third millennium Chinese bronzes to contemporary American painting (and everything in between), but my research centers on the Late Roman Empire, specifically on the centuries coinciding with the emergence of Christianity. I focus on how the image of Christ evolved between 200 and 700 CE.
You received your doctorate in the History of Art at the University of Oxford; how was the experience living in England and in what ways did it affect your view of art?
Living in England was a transformational experience for me. In addition to my time at Oxford, I was also able to study at the Scuole Normale Superiore in Pisa, Italy on an exchange. To have three years in Europe, most of them in England, certainly changed the way that I think. Oxford is a special place – perhaps the greatest center of learning in the world – and it is one populated with the best and brightest from every corner of the earth. London, which I visited at least monthly, and which is in my view the world’s most cosmopolitan city, is also less than an hour away. This is to say that through my exposure to other ways of thinking and knowing, I learned a great deal about the world and how it operates.
As I mentioned in my previous answer, art, for me, is an aesthetically compelling visual manifestation of history. My time in Europe did not change my view of art dramatically (although London’s museums certainly expanded my knowledge of non-Western art traditions), but it did alter my view of history. In America, we have a poor knowledge of world history, and this is to our disadvantage. I’m not sure that ‘history repeats itself’ exactly, but things today can look an awful lot like things that have happened in the past, and we can and should learn the lessons of what has happened previously.
Helping manage the Greek and Roman collections at The Metropolitan Museum of Art must have been thrilling, but we don’t want to put words in your mouth. What adjective would you assign to the experience?
Formative. The collections at the Met are astounding. They are unparalleled in this country and rank among the greatest in the world.
In my role at the Met, I was responsible for the department’s contribution to a museum-wide collections database integration project. While I was used as a utility player and was able to assist on department-specific publications and curatorial research, I was exposed in my ‘normal job’ to bureaucracy on a massive scale. I don’t mean to use bureaucracy here in a negative way –bureaucracy is essential at a scale like the Met’s. The Cummer Museum has about 25 full-time employees; the Met has about 2500. The Cummer Museum’s operating budget is about $4.5M; the Met’s is roughly $450M. To be able to know how to navigate a bureaucracy is a skill, and it is one that is needed in institutions. I learned a great deal about how to do this while in the department, some from trial-and-error, but mostly from others, including and especially the eminent curator-in-chief at the time, Carlos Picon.