September 4. 9/04. 904. The area code for Jacksonville. All of northeast Florida, sure, but Jacksonville has latched on to the number as part of its branding identity. Every year on September 4, Jacksonville celebrates 904 Day highlighting what makes it special. I worked in Jacksonville for nine years and still live in the 904.
Candidly, I have an increasingly conflicted relationship with the area, not just Jacksonville, but the entire region the 904 covers. I don’t care to get into that now, if you’d like my reasons, listen to my “Welcome to Florida” podcast. What I would most like to celebrate about the 904 on 9/04 is Jacksonville‘s art museums and a pair of exhibitions they are hosting as good as any you’ll find in the country.
I still have shivers thinking about Kara Walker’s prints and sculptures on view at the Jacksonville Museum of Contemporary Art through October 2, 2022. I’ve written about my experience when I visited the show. I’m on pins and needles waiting for Deborah Roberts’ new exhibition to open September 16 at the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens. Walker and Roberts are unquestionably two of the most original, lauded and essential contemporary artists working this millennium. Walker‘s influence began in the 90s; Roberts has become a force within the last handful of years.
Both have exhibitions and examples of their work on few in the finest museums around America. I saw a Deborah Roberts painting at the Hirshorn Museum, America’s national gallery for contemporary and modern art earlier this summer.
Both are Black women. Both confront the racial and gender inequities which continue plaguing America. Which continue plaguing the 904. inequities being proudly promoted and upheld by a majority of citizens and politicians and businesses and governments in this deep red corner of red state Florida.
Displaying the work of Walker and Roberts makes a bold assertion by Jacksonville’s art museums that they are not coasting along with the racism, misogyny and nationalist populism which has become fashionable where they call home.
The exhibitions additionally prove that contemporary art – cutting edge contemporary art – has a home in the 904. Without any meaningful gallery network for promoting contemporary art in northeast Florida, these institutions will need to lead that effort themselves. Due to typically long histories and conservative entrenchments, art museums are generally ill equipped to support and promote what’s taking place on the avant-garde. That can’t be the case in Jacksonville if it plans on being anything other than a cultural backwater, a historic criticism not entirely unwarranted.
The Cummer, in particular, has become an encouraging beacon for provocative and noteworthy contemporary art. Deborah Roberts “I’m” comes on the heels of Zanele Muholi’s dramatic photography show in 2021. I have raved about that presentation previously for its groundbreaking presence in the 904.
Thanks for both exhibitions goes to the Cummer’s Executive Director Andrea Barnwell Brownlee. Brownlee took over at the Cummer in late 2020 after 20 years in charge of the art museum at Atlanta’s historically Black college for women, Spelman. She has personal friendships with many of the leading contemporary Black female artists working today as a result.
Her exhibition schedule at Spelman was a tour de force of Black women artists: Amy Sherald, Deborah Roberts, Mickalene Thomas, Howardina Pindell, Faith Ringgold. Brownlee has brought Sherald and now Roberts to the Cummer, here’s hoping the others and their contemporaries are close behind.
These are the artists with shows in Miami and even New York. The combination of exhibitions for Kara Walker and Deborah Roberts in September 2022 would be exceptional were it occurring in Miami or New York. That they’re taking place simultaneously in Jacksonville’s art musuems is astonishing and I dare say an unprecedented 1-2 punch for celebrity-level contemporary art in the city.
The 904 has a great deal of work to do if it actually wants to live up to its “bold new city of the South” moniker. Years of work. Hard work on a number of fronts. I’m doubtful that work will be done. What I do find hopeful about the 904 is Kara Walker and Deborah Roberts and Jacksonville’s art museums.