Cummer Director Hope McMath says enthusiasm for art is ‘sort of in my marrow’
Hope McMath cherishes the time she gets to walk around the grounds of The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens, watching visitors enjoy the exhibits and historic gardens.
"It's sort of in my marrow that I feel art can be relevant to anyone as long as you're presenting really high-quality art but in really interesting and relevant ways, whether that's for a 4-year-old child or for someone who's traveled the world," McMath said. "The Cummer is a really beautiful, safe place to do that."
March will mark the fifth year the Jacksonville native has been director of the Cummer, at 829 Riverside Ave. She has been with the museum for nearly two decades, previously as an arts educator before becoming its leader.
The start of her tenure focused on repairing "unsexy things," such as the building's air conditioning, windows and roofing.
"For visitors, you can't see any of that, feel any of that, touch any of that," McMath said. "And yet, for a facility that's over 50 years old, it was important to get everything up to some sort of appropriate place."
But in the past year, there have been more visible changes to the museum, she said.
Under McMath's leadership, the Cummer renovated its front landscape, expanded the cafe, refurbished the parking lots and restored a historic garden previously closed to the public.
"I feel strongly that the Cummer has this ability to do more than one thing at a time — that's been really fun to stretch that artistic mission a little bit," McMath said.
Her day typically begins at 7 a.m. She gets to watch the sunrise over the St. Johns River from the view in her office, which she says is the best part of her office. And while many directors' offices feature pieces from the museum's collection, McMath prefers for her space to showcase work from local artists and students. There's also a piece featuring a sunflower by her husband, Barry Wilson, who teaches art at Douglas Anderson School of the Arts.
McMath said she spends about a third of her time outside of the office, another third around the exhibits and grounds and the final third in her office, where she prepares for board meetings and writes grants and reports.
On a recent day, McMath planned to share one of those reports with Delores Barr Weaver. Weaver donated funds that allow visitors into the museum without having to pay admission on the first Saturday of every month. More than 18,000 people, nearly twice as many as expected, have used this, McMath said.
"By removing one little barrier or one little perception, it makes people feel like they can be a part of this organization," she said.
McMath's favorite piece in the museum is the centerpiece of a collection opening Jan. 25. The piece is a black-and-white photograph featuring the mother and two aunts of artist Vardi Kahana. The three women are bunched together, each showing the tattoo on their arm they received in Auschwitz during the Holocaust.
"It's so much about what art is about," she said. "You can read a lot and look at statistics, but me looking at that one image makes it all very real and very tangible."