Breaking Point: Accessibility and the Cummer MuseumNovember 10, 2016
As Hope McMath, director of the Cummer Museum in Jacksonville, Florida, packed up her office a couple of weeks ago—her last day—she came across her old performance evaluations buried in a closet. The evaluations, dating back to 1994, described her first project at the museum: the Very Special Arts (VSA) Festival, an annual event that would increase access to art for individuals with disabilities. Jean Hall Dodd, the director of education at the time, had assigned McMath the task of making the small museum’s staid collection of paintings and sculptures relevant to people with disabilities.
“She said, ‘Here’s a cool project. Figure it out,’” McMath recalled.
McMath was twenty-three at the time, working two days a week as a museum educator. Now forty-five and cleaning out her spacious corner office at the museum, she reread her evaluations. They described her efforts to answer a question that would follow her for the twenty-two years that she worked at the museum, ascending to director of education, then to deputy director of the museum, and finally to director. McMath, with cropped gray hair and a faint Southern accent, said: “We were trying to figure out what it would mean for a museum to be fully accessible, as one of its core values. What would that mean?”
McMath’s struggle to answer this question, and in so doing pivot the institution away from its discriminatory underpinnings, is emblematic of museums’ struggles nationally. From Fred Wilson to Adrian Piper, recent art history is replete with artists and academics who have shown that bias and exclusion are built into the very institutional structures of museums. When asked recently if the art world is biased, the artist Marilyn Minter responded, “Hahaha… is the Pope Catholic?” McMath’s effort to create a museum fully accessible to anyone regardless of physical ability, and eventually regardless of age, race, or gender, would result in exhibitions that were racially diverse and representative of the Jacksonville community—but would also drive donors away from the museum. It would involve a rebranding of the institution and community outreach that would cause vexation among board members. And it would be defined by an outspokenness on social-justice issues that would ultimately contribute to McMath’s surprise resignation in September 2016.
Museums have been in the news lately. Earlier this year, the New York Times devoted an entire special section to museums that would give most readers the sense the institutions were very antiquated and perhaps even in trouble. The news over in St. Louis hasn’t helped that perception. The Contemporary Art Museum there elicited outrage over its tone-deaf and ham-fisted exhibition of work by Kelly Walker, a blue-chip White male artist who casually smears chocolate or toothpaste over images of Black people. Why Walker does this exactly, nobody could quite explain, including the curator, who ignominiously resigned. But equally newsworthy is the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which transcended the challenge of its enormous and onerous subject matter, opening two months ago in Washington, DC, to critical and popular praise. The acclaim surrounding its opening suggests that museums can and do make a difference, refuting a skepticism that goes back to the height of the culture wars in the late 1970s and 1980s.
In 1976, when Jane Livingston was chief curator at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, she served on the National Endowment for the Arts Museum Policy Panel. During the panel’s first meeting, she recalled something that Martin Friedman had said. Friedman was director of the Walker Art Center at the time and eventually oversaw the creation of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden and the construction of a new museum building, which replaced the Walker’s previous home that it had occupied since it opened in 1927.
Corcoran’s trustees canceled the show against Livingston’s wishes before it even opened.
“He was kind of a wise man, and he said to us, ‘We need to take this seriously, because we may not have very much time to give away money to the arts in America,’” Livingston recalled. The following year, Livingston brought an exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography to the Corcoran that included the X Portfolio, consisting of photographs of gay BDSM. It created such a public outcry that the Corcoran’s trustees canceled the show against Livingston’s wishes before it even opened. Livingston resigned in protest. She’s currently an independent curator and editor of the Richard Diebenkorn Catalogue Raisonné.
Today is different, Livingston says: “The art itself, what’s coming out of the studios of contemporary artists, is far more attuned to the contemporary political environment than it was thirty years ago. There’s no question about that.” But museums have multiple reasons they don’t exhibit it. Livingston noticed two developments in the context of museums since Mapplethorpe. Many of the established and well-funded museums have retreated from new and possibly controversial shows all together, with the cover or excuse that plenty of other alternative spaces will show that art. “‘Let them take the risk,’ is their thinking,” she said. Museums have also become awfully market conscious; they are much less likely to take a gamble with ticket sales by putting on a historically important but obscure, expensive, and possibly controversial exhibition of an artist or movement. “I think there’s something about the nature of this particular democracy, this ol’ U-S-of-A; there is this deep-seated conservatism. There’s a fearful tone that we don’t acknowledge.”
Lynyrd Skynyrd and Limp Bizkit both originated in Jacksonville
Creating a museum with full accessibility as one of its core values would force the Cummer Museum to directly confront that fear. But McMath, who had just begun her master’s degree in teaching at Jacksonville University, didn’t know that at the time. She had joined the education staff at a moment when its outreach to underserved communities was just beginning.
McMath was born in 1971 in Jacksonville, a city seemingly forever polarized.1 High schools are named after Black educators and prominent civil-rights movement leaders as well as Confederate generals and the founder of the Ku Klux Klan. The city exemplifies Florida’s swing-state status. It elected its first African American mayor five years ago. Last year, its citizens changed their minds and elected a mayor who would go on to endorse Donald Trump. It’s the largest city by population in Florida, with about 40 percent of residents considering themselves people of color. It also has its share of cultural prodigies—Lynyrd Skynyrd and Limp Bizkit both originated in Jacksonville—toward which its citizens either chest-thump with pride or roll their eyes in embarrassment. Tim Tebow, who was on the verge of becoming an NFL superstar—right before he wasn’t—grew up and played high-school football there.
A hundred-yard-long hallway tenuously linked the Cummer Museum’s education department to the rest of the museum. The department, named Art Connections, housed the art studios and the handicap entrance to the museum, and on the other side was the rest of the museum: its main entrance, the galleries, the permanent collection, administration offices, facilities, security, the gift shop, and gardens. No one in the tight-knit group of education staff, which, as of 1996, included McMath as a full-time educator, complained of the separation. Physically distinct, they made decisions without much input from the rest of the museum.
The Cummer was now the local affiliate for the VSA Festival, and in 1997, Sister Elizabeth Fiorite, a social-services counselor from Independent Living for the Adult Blind (ILAB), called Art Connections with an idea. The counselors at ILAB teach living skills to individuals who have lost their vision, and when Sister Elizabeth called, a new program, Women of Vision, was born: a monthly meeting for low-vision and blind women to make art, take touch-tours of the museum, and write their memoirs. It was one of the first programs of its kind in the nation. “We agreed to it naively,” McMath said. She and the rest of the education staff set out to adapt the museum’s permanent collection, which prioritized the experience of vision, for the blind. Art Connections began to function like a skunkworks department; the small, loosely structured group of educators developed new and, at the time, radical projects by escaping routine organizational procedures. Their ability to innovate was due in large part to their autonomy and the excitement present in the department.
McMath became director of education “by default,” she says, in 1999, and she continued to develop new ventures that increased the museum’s accessibility. The education staff had grown to seven full-time educators and three part-time. “We were birthing about a program a year,” she says. An Arts in Healthcare program, at a time when the term was barely invented, sent museum educators into hospice clinics and to patients’ bedsides. The Junior Docents program entered its fifth year. The VSA festival now brought thousands of visitors annually. School tours increased precipitously, and many general-attendance visitors confused the front entrance to the museum with the Art Connections entrance. Rightfully so, as nearly half of the museum’s 100,000 annual visitors were now entering through Art Connections.
We were now dealing with communities who did not have a history of experience with museums
“But we realized we weren’t reaching audiences that have been excluded for a long time, schools where the majority of the students were non-White,” McMath said. In response, the education staff created Cummer in the Classroom, which not only sent educators into those specific schools several times annually but also had those students visit the museum for tours and art classes multiple times throughout the year. “We were now dealing with communities who did not have a history of experience with museums. It was a very holistic approach,” she said. For the first time in the Cummer’s history, the demographics of its visitors began to resemble that of Jacksonville as a whole.
It’s highly unusual for a museum to hire a director from within, much less promote an educator to director. McMath “hesitantly” became director of the museum in 2009. The museum had been running four years of deficits and was now in the midst of the economic recession. Donors were pulling back, and the museum had just gone through its second round of layoffs. But Art Connections had become a driver for visitors and funders alike, and McMath had significant experience with fundraising on behalf of the various education initiatives. And McMath’s influence was increasing in Jacksonville’s community. Wherever Art Connections went, the rest of the museum tended to follow; it had become the leading edge of the museum. “They realized it would do no harm to promote me as director. And at that time, doing no harm was a lot.”
McMath’s first three years were spent mostly fixing things: the building, the budget, relationships. When the museum regained its footing, McMath felt she could lift her gaze and focus on growing the staff and the budget a little and getting back to the question of accessibility. In order to do that, she focused on eliminating the bureaucratic silos that kept the staff from working hip to hip. Art Connections owed much of its success to a flat organizational structure and a sense of shared ownership. McMath wanted to apply that way of working to the institution as a whole. “That meant shifting a culture. Shifting our trustees, our donors, our staff, our marketing, our budgets. Shifting everything.”
After conducting a community survey, the museum completed a rebranding with the goal of eliminating any associations of elitism or untouchable-ness. Galleries were renovated. When Curatorial planned out a year of programming and decided which exhibitions to curate in-house or bring in from elsewhere, McMath made sure staff from education were not only at the table to get information but were helping drive the decision-making. “They’re the ones who know their audiences best, who are actually going to use the exhibition.” She worked to make all images used in the museum’s public outreach diverse and inclusive.
"A museum is a behemoth of an institution, often operating on extremely outdated systems"
Like turning a battleship, McMath spent years reorienting the Cummer. Dena Beard, who recently took over the Lab in San Francisco, an alternative and multidisciplinary space for art and experimental music in existence for thirty years, explains, “A museum is a behemoth of an institution, often operating on extremely outdated systems. It becomes very, very difficult for a museum to have a flexible or responsive show that’s not generic or platitudinous in its appeal.” Beard, who was previously a curator at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, wants to see a kind of “generative anarchy” at institutions like the Lab. “What frustrated me about working in a museum environment was that there wasn’t a conversation about value. Museums are just falling back on the kind of older narratives about why things are valuable rather than reconfiguring those narratives for the current moment.”
In 2014, the president of the Jacksonville City Council visited the Museum of Contemporary Art in Jacksonville and saw in the atrium a photograph of a naked woman lying on a couch. He called it “pornography” and petitioned the mayor to defund the $230,000 city grant to the museum. It’s in this climate that McMath’s outspokenness on policy issues in Jacksonville increased.
A city-council bill that would expand Jacksonville’s Human Rights Ordinance to prevent discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity has been on the cusp of passing for the past two years. A group of male Baptist ministers outside Jacksonville’s City Hall chanted the distressingly effective rallying cry against the bill: “Keep the men out of the women’s showers!” McMath attended the public hearings and strongly advocated for its passage in person and through social media. When asked whether her advocacy became an issue among the Cummer’s trustees, she said, “It caused problems.”
The museum began organizing shows highlighting African American artists, including one of Whitfield Lovell. In Jacksonville, with all of the residual bigotry that comes with its legacy as a city in the South, the creation of a museum that was accessible and relevant to communities of color was risky from a fundraising perspective. Donors began to pull back following the Cummer’s revamped outreach to these communities. When McMath inquired among the donors who were leaving, she was informed that it was “because the annual report had too many Black faces in it,” she said. The same year the Lovell exhibition opened, thousands of recruitment flyers for the Ku Klux Klan were found throughout the city’s numerous neighborhoods. Other flyers explicitly promoted gay bashing. Despite this, McMath organized an exhibition that commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the civil-rights movement: “It repelled some people. But if we were going to be a place that had conversations around race, social justice, and inequality, you have to pull people along.”
For McMath, full accessibility meant making the museum more than just open and available to its community, which is what the Cummer had been doing for decades. It remained distant, not openly disrespectful—it was no longer explicitly “Whites only”—but still aloof, to say the least. Overcoming this detachment required the museum to actively reach out to communities of color, a prospect that did not sit well with the museum’s trustees. Many viewed it as preferential treatment. The ensuing clash came as no surprise to those involved.
In late June 2016, the weekend after the shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, McMath introduced what would be the last exhibition she would organize for the Cummer, LIFT: Contemporary Expressions of the African American Experience. “We need to recognize the intersection of violence against Black communities and violence against the LGBT communities,” she said. While McMath spoke of the intersectional concerns of LIFT, the complaints rolled in, left by museumgoers, stating that LIFT was “nauseating” and “too political.” With increased attendance by Black patrons came more complaints, like one by a White woman who was upset that her nieces had to wait in line behind Black children. Another major donor withdrew funding from the museum.
“Political culture cannot be tepid and passionless.”
As Martha Nussbaum has written, “Respect on its own is cold and inert, insufficient to overcome the bad tendencies that lead human beings to tyrannize over one another.”2 When McMath worked to make full accessibility one of the Cummer’s core values, she would inevitably create frustrations. But many museum directors and curators consider the cultivation of these emotions—frustration, bafflement, excitement—part of the institution’s core mission. Anne Ellegood, senior curator at the Hammer Museum at UCLA, has participated in confrontations herself. “Certainly there are situations where I might be taking a group through an exhibition and somebody might call into question a particular artwork or take issue with an artist. Participating in that dialogue is crucial,” she said. As Nussbaum explains, “imaginative engagement” with the inner lives of others is a requirement in a just world: “Political culture cannot be tepid and passionless.”3
McMath resigned at the beginning of September this year. When I spoke with her shortly after her resignation, she had no regrets: “I’ve always tugged that rope pretty hard. For this community and that institution, I probably pulled as hard as it could [be pulled] and clearly had pulled [it] as far as it wanted to go now. If art is one those things that help people feel and thus most deeply understand something, then why wouldn’t these conversations be in the museum? But that’s a role for museums that a whole lot of people aren’t sold on.”