Catching up with former Cummer Museum director Adam Levine

I had the pleasure of briefly catching up with former Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens Director Adam Levine on a quick visit he recently made back to Jacksonville. Levine was in charge of the Cummer from October 2018 through January of 2020. He left the Cummer to return as director of the Toledo Museum of Art where he had spent the previous five years.

I first met him in 2019, right as I was learning the ropes about art writing.

Levine graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Dartmouth College, where he majored in anthropology, art history and mathematics & social science. He continued his studies as a Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford, where he earned his master’s degree with distinction and D.Phil. in the history of art. Prior to the time he spent rising the ranks at TMA, he was a collections management assistant in the department of Greek and Roman art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He’s published and spoken widely across the art world.

I, on the other hand, had spent 25 years in the sports media and was trying to teach my self how to talk about art and talk to art people by devouring podcasts, YouTube videos and books on art, and visiting as many galleries and museums as I could in my spare time.

Levine was the first major “player” in the arts world I had a chance to spend some time and talk with. I remember how excited I was to meet him – to begin stretching my legs in the art world, start meeting people, developing a personal and professional network in the field. He couldn’t have been nicer or more interested into my transition in the field, never using his astronomical knowledge edge over me to make me feel inferior.

Choosing Levin to run the Cummer was a bold choice by the museum’s leadership. His credentials were impeccable, but Levine was in his early 30s when the Cummer gave him the reigns. He’d never been a museum director previously. The Cummer is an august institution, the leading cultural institution of a major American city. Its directorship is not a starter job.

I – along with everyone at the Cummer who had helped bring Levine here – was crestfallen when he announced he would be leaving after little more than a year on the job. TMA’s director was leaving to take over the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, another gem of an arts institution.

Through the 10 years I’ve lived and worked in the Jacksonville area, I’ve come to realize Jacksonville doesn’t get – or make for itself – a lot of big breaks. The wheels of progress move slowly in Jacksonville. Often, they don’t move at all. For years.

There are reasons why Jacksonville hasn’t ascended in the past thirty years the way other once similarly sized Southern cities like Nashville, Charlotte and St. Petersburg have. I won’t get into all of those reasons here, but Levine represented a “break” for Jacksonville. A bold choice that could bear previously unimaginable fruit. A rising star. A kid, yes, but a wunderkind.

The future was bright. The opportunities limitless. A supernova the likes of which rarely calls Jacksonville home.

And then he left. After 15 months.

Levine’s decision had little to do with the Cummer. TMA was his “home” museum, its directorship, something of a dream job. “Momma was calling” to use an old expression from my college football days when a head coach leaves a good job for another job that has particular or sentimental meaning to him.

It would have been easy, and maybe natural, for the Cummer to feel burned by the risk it took in hiring Levine. To think it wasn’t good enough for a talent of his scale. For all of Jacksonville’s obstacles to greatness, a city-wide inferiority complex places near the top of the list. For a town which refers to itself as “the bold new city of the South,” its historic actions – with a few notable exceptions such as its aggressive pursuit of an NFL franchise – trend much more toward the meek.

Levine’s quick departure could have reinforced those municipal self-doubts and encouraged the museum to replace him with a traditional, safe – re: boring – hire; someone officials knew would be here for the long haul – whether or not they wanted to admit to themselves that would be because no one else was interested in hiring that person.

That’s the rub with hiring great people, doing so puts you at risk of them leaving because they are in demand. As a manager in my previous life who helped hire people, that was a risk I was always willing to take. I’d rather have a brief contact with brilliance than a long contact with mediocrity.

That’s not always the way history-steeped institutions think, particularly in the arts, particularly in Jacksonville.

Fortunately for Jacksonville and the Cummer and the arts field in general (and myself), after swinging for the fences and landing Levine only to see him leave, the Cummer swung for the fences again with its next at bat. (You can see my long career in sports media coming out in this story.)

Andrea Barnwell Brownlee had been the director at Spelman College in Atlanta’s art museum for 20 years. She possessed an impeccable record stewarding the museum. Problem was, she didn’t apply for the open Cummer directorship, wasn’t interested in leaving Spelman, and didn’t even return the Cummer’s call when the search firm first reached out to her about the position.

I share more of that story here.

The Cummer persisted, however, leaned on one of Brownlee’s mentors – Jacksonville’s Johnetta Cole – to talk her into picking up the phone and was able to convince Brownlee to fill Levine’s shoes. Back-to-back home runs.

In the process, the Cummer made history as Brownlee became only the fourth Black woman to head a “mainstream” art museum in the United States. Right here in Jacksonville. The Deep South.

A bold, dramatic, visionary choice that has already paid off.

Another “break” for Jacksonville. Another shooting star the likes of which rarely arrives. Again, a bright future. Again, limitless opportunities. In entirely different ways than Levine presented, but equally thrilling.

I’ve had the great fortune to spend time with Brownlee as well. My professional esteem for her is as high as anyone I know. Levine too.

Ask me why the Cummer is a “great” museum. The first thing I’ll tell you is to look at who it’s attracted as its past two directors.

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