An inside look at the Cummer’s exhibitions matrix
By Andrea Barnwell Brownlee, Ph.D., George W. and Kathleen I. Gibbs Director and CEO
What role do exhibitions serve at an art museum? Museums, after all, are a particular type of institution defined in large part by the presence of a permanent collection. There are institutions without (or with limited) collections that focus exclusively on exhibitions. Known as kunsthalles (literally, “art halls” in German), these spaces are more popular in Europe, although there are some notable examples in this country.
The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens is decidedly not a kunsthalle. Yes, we have our 4,500-square-foot Mason Gallery, along with two smaller temporary exhibition spaces (the Millner Gallery and the Jacobsen Gallery, which features American Art), but we also have a permanent collection that spans 5,000 years of human history. Why, given this responsibility to preserve and display our survey collection of historical artworks, would we give some 20 percent of our gallery space over to temporary exhibitions?
Like most things, there is no single, simple answer to this question. While the Cummer has broad holdings, our collections are not encyclopedic, so our exhibition strategy is, in part, guided by our commitment to complementing and expanding our permanent holdings. The nationally and internationally touring exhibitions that we have presented underscore this strategic effort. In 2019 we presented “French Moderns: Monet to Matisse, 1850-1950,” an exhibition of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art organized by the Brooklyn Museum. The exhibition had a great many merits, but chief among them was that European modernism is not a strength of our collection. Of the 49 artists represented in the show, fewer than five of them are routinely displayed at our museum. “French Moderns” underscored how traveling exhibitions allow us to broaden the scope of our offerings.
Of course, Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art consistently draws audiences. Over the 12-week run of the exhibition, we welcomed more than 55,000 visitors. Exhibitions support our focus on expanding our audience and introducing new visitors to this gem of an institution. Likewise, exhibitions featuring sought-after subject matter allow us to reconnect with those who have not visited in some time. But this does not mean that exhibitions are profitable. As a rule, exhibitions lose money. Exhibitions may be an audience engagement tool, but they are first and foremost a service to the communities in which museums operate to help broaden perspectives and connect their communities to the world.
So how, then, does a museum choose which temporary exhibitions to bring to their communities (beyond complementarity with the permanent collection)? There are logistical concerns like cost (can we afford it?), space (is the gallery big enough?), timing (do we have any conflicts?), and these, among others, are more or less consistent across museums. Despite these tactical commonalities, most museums differ in some degree when it comes to their strategy for choosing exhibitions. At the Cummer we have committed to using exhibitions to tell a global history of art. This global focus serves two purposes. First, it connects Jacksonville to the broader world and helps situate our current contemporary moment in its historical context. Secondly, a truly global focus ensures visitors will feel represented in the art displayed at the Cummer.
LaPlaca Cohen, a New York marketing firm, has undertaken a longitudinal survey of cultural participation patterns for nearly two decades. According to their research, the second most cited reason for not partaking in a cultural activity is reported as “it’s not for someone like me,” which is to say, the individual does not feel represented. The museum field is increasingly aware that viewers identify in a myriad of ways and that we all have complicated identities. For this reason, the Cummer uses a matrix to help guide our decision-making on exhibitions and ensure that we have geographic and chronological diversity in our program over any three-year period.
If that is the machinery, then, you might be wondering, what is the outcome? To answer that, consider four major exhibitions you may have visited in the recent years.
“Louis Comfort Tiffany: Treasures of the Driehaus Collection” opened in October 2019. Though perhaps best known for his glass, which is amply represented in the show, metalwork, furniture, and more demonstrate the breadth of accomplishment Tiffany oversaw in his studio. Tiffany and the artists he employed (both men and women) sought inspiration in nature. The exhibition had salient links to our gardens.