Museum director resigns, reflects on career path

Hope McMath

Hope McMath, the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens’ self-described “reluctant” director is stepping down. She served in that position for seven years, and was a member of the museum’s staff for 22 years.

Holly Keris, also a Riverside resident, and the museum’s Chief Curator, will take on the additional role of Chief Operating Officer during the search for McMath’s replacement. Keris is a 13-year veteran of the museum.

“It is very true that I was, and have probably remained, a reluctant director. I loved my job as Director of Education at the Cummer Museum,” said McMath. “I love the daily discoveries when sharing art making and art history with people of all ages, abilities, races, and backgrounds. It was challenging, meaningful, and a ton of fun.”

The Riverside resident admitted as she moved into larger administrative positions, which were incredible opportunities, it always caused her to pause, especially her move to director.

“I was always concerned about my passion dimming if I became the leader of an organization that required a lot of time on fundraising, staff management, Trustee engagement, facility upkeep, budgeting, and the other responsibilities of such a position,” she said.

Stepping into the shoes of former director Maarten van de Guchte in 2009 came at a challenging time for the museum and for the country.

“Who would want to take on such a job only a few years after the stock market had crashed, funding for the arts was under extreme threat, the museum had just experienced layoffs, we were part way through a reaccreditation process, and needed to create a new strategic plan?” McMath asked. “I have to say it was my love for the people I worked with and for that motivated me to take the leap. What I found is that my passion for community, my vision for how the arts and the beauty of the natural world, and my strong business skills could live in harmony and do something that would build upon the legacy of the Cummer family while moving the museum forward.”

Although McMath, 45, has served seven years as the museum’s director, she said she’s spent almost half her life there.

“I started working at the Cummer Museum as a part-time educator under the brilliant Jean Hall Dodd, right as I was starting my Master’s program at Jacksonville University,” said McMath. “Prior to that I worked as a graphic designer and was active as an artist.”

McMath said she realized although she wanted to work in the arts she needed to connect more deeply to people, so she pursued a degree that balanced studio art, education, and art history.  “It was perfect, as was my ability to land the educator position at the museum,” she said.

The Jacksonville native and graduate of Terry Parker High School said she can never recall a time in which art wasn’t part of her life.

“Even as a very young child I loved making art at home and at school,” said McMath. “My passion for art history and museums was lit in two stages. First were visits as a child to the museums here in Jacksonville, including the Cummer Museum, and summer visits to the Toledo Museum of Art with my grandparents, who lived in Ohio.” 

The other stage in the development of McMath’s passion was her undergraduate experience at JU. 

“Debra Murphy, now at UNF, was my Art History professor, and I just couldn’t get enough!” said McMath, noting it was a trip to Greece in her freshman year that was transformational. “This lower-middle-class girl who grew up in Arlington had only traveled to Ohio to visit family,” she said. “Thanks to a scholarship I was provided by JU President Fran Kinne, I was able to travel to Greece and Turkey with Dr. Murphy.” 

Under McMath’s leadership, the Riverside-based museum saw an increase in attendance and the development of many programs, including the Very Special Arts Festival, now in its 21st year. During her tenure, the museum’s capital projects included renovation of Art Connections, restoration of the Olmstead garden, the street-side sculpture garden on Riverside Avenue and a showpiece of a parking lot across the street. McMath was instrumental in bringing to the Cummer over 100 exhibitions, and more public programs than she could name.

When asked to name her favorite accomplishment, McMath is hard pressed to admit to one.

“This is an impossible question for me to answer…really,” she said. “It was a thrill to make some big, sexy things happen, like the restoration of the Olmsted Garden, the renovation to Art Connections over a dozen years ago, the transformation of the campus along Riverside Avenue, and the creation of several endowments to support programs and exhibitions.  There has also been a string of not-so-sexy, but very important, projects like replacing every window, repointing every brick, renovating galleries, repairing every roof, and fighting termites.” 

She said she was also very moved by the current LIFT exhibition and glad to leave on a very high note, despite some of the negativity that has been publicly expressed by visitors to the museum. 

“This small part of what we have done at the Cummer has hopefully moved the needle on issues of race, equity, social justice, and deep community engagement,” said McMath. “I do happen to believe, and I see it playing out every day, that art can communicate hard truths, inspire us to seek solutions, connect people, and create change.  Although not unique to the Cummer, and not universally loved, this work and the people I have met through it are what I am most humbled and changed by.”

The “reluctant” director of art and arts education is taking time to explore how and where she might next take her skills for engaging and inspiring others through art. In the meantime, McMath may get back to printmaking, a shared passion with her husband, Barry Wilson.

“Our shared love of printmaking, arts education, and travel sit at the center of our relationship and how we experience the world together,” she said.

By Kate A. Hallock
Resident Community News

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