The Founders of the Cummer Museum

The Founders of the Cummer Museum

The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens is the only historical art museum in Jacksonville, Florida. For the last sixty-one years, the Cummer Museum has brought in many visitors for their many different galleries and botanical gardens. One of those visitors being myself, having grown up in the area. As a visitor, I am always exposed and transported to their permanent collections of periodic eras of art, such as 17th century European, late 19th century European, 18th century, and early 20th century. In addition, another main attraction is their Italian, English, Upper and Lower Olmsted botanical gardens behind the museum. Although visually captivating, I often asked myself how this museum came to be. Who curated the artwork and created the botanical gardens? Who are the founders? Ninah May Holden Cummer and her husband, Arthur Gerrish Cummer, are the original founders.

 

Surprisingly, neither one of them was from Jacksonville, Florida. Arthur Gerrish Cummer was born in 1873 in Morley, Michigan, and Ninah May Holden was born in 1875 in Michigan City, Indiana. The couple did not meet until they were both attending the University of Michigan. They married in 1897, two years after graduating, and then moved to Jacksonville, Florida, along with Arthur’s family, to expand his family business known as Cummer Lumber Company. While in Jacksonville, Ninah and Arthur built an English Tudor Revival house on Riverside Avenue. The house was part of a “family compound of three houses with adjacent gardens.” Ultimately, this became the Cummer’s home for the rest of their lives, and the house and gardens became the museum today.

Arthur Cummer

 

 

During their time in Jacksonville, the Cummers were both known for their charity work and participated in multiple organizations. According to the museum website on the Cummer’s history, “The Museum was the culmination of this couple’s remarkable civic, social, and business involvement in northeast Florida.” For Arthur, in addition to working for the lumber company and the vice president of Barnett National Bank, he supported the Children’s Home Society and the Community Chest. Arthur often assisted “firemen and high school students needing funds for college.” Meanwhile, Ninah was on a mission to “improve public health, wellbeing, and civic development.” She worked with many organizations like the American Red Cross, the National Urban League, Pearl S. Buck’s East and West, the Jacksonville’s Woman Club, and the National Recreation Association. In addition, in 1910, she served as the president of the Children’s Home Society of Florida, and in 1922, she orchestrated the first Garden Club of Jacksonville.

 

Arthur and Ninah were heavily involved with philanthropy after the tragic loss of their child. They had a daughter, whom they named DeEtte Holden Cummer, who was born on November 13th, 1909. Tragically, just after seventeen days, she died. The museum website acknowledges within their backstory how, “upon the death of their only child, the Cummers devoted themselves to civic, charitable work.” Their daughter’s death wasn’t the only effect the Cummer’s endured. In 1943, Arthur died. Following his death, Ninah went on a mission of purchasing and collecting different kinds of artwork. She “allocated her family’s resources towards a new initiative—the creation of an art museum.” Ninah wanted to build an art museum, the current one today. So, within the last 15 years of her life, she purchased more than 60 works of art. Her collection consisted of work from Agnolo Gaddi, Peter Paul Rubens, Winslow Homer, and George Inness. Along with her art collection, Ninah had a huge interest in and knowledge of Florida horticulture, which is the art of garden management. She soared in her passion for horticulture by crafting three botanical gardens currently at the museum today.

Ninah Cummer said, “Naturally, no civic undertaking can function adequately without the interest and support of the community within which it is located. Therefore, it is hoped that there may be additions to the Foundation from time to time so that this Museum may rank favorably with those established in other cities in the United States.” 


 

Newsletter of the Cummer's Grand Opening.
 

The museum opened its doors to the public on November 11, 1961. Upon its grand opening, it was called Cummer Gallery of Art. Yet, years later, the name changed to the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens, which is still its name today. Although Ninah didn’t live to see the museum open, having died in 1958, she wrote in her will her goal was “to create a center of beauty and culture for the exception of all people.” As a result, she found it fitting to donate her and Arthur’s estate to the city of Jacksonville. Currently, at the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens, Ninah and Arthur’s story of civic work and the museum is displayed as an exhibit in the Millner Gallery. I had the opportunity to speak with a representative of the museum, who informed me the Ninah and Arthur exhibit is up in honor of the museum’s recent 61st anniversary. Interestingly, most of the Cummer’s home has been remodeled over time by the museum itself, but the Tillman Tudor Room, one of the original rooms, still replicates the original windows, artwork, woodwork, and furnishing.

Ninah Cummer strolling in one of the botanical gardens in 1929. Image courtesy of cummermuseum.org.
 
Botanical gardens today. 

Although I loved going to museums growing up, I rarely ever heard about the founders and curators, especially if they were women. In the case of Ninah May Holden Cummer, she is an example of a woman who donated her home and art to the museum she constructed, and she did all of this during the 20th century, when women didn’t have much power. As a native of Jacksonville, Florida for almost twenty years, I have been to the Cummer countless times from when I first moved here in 2005 to now. The museum never ceases to amaze me with its collections of different historical artwork and botanical gardens. You’re exposed to many kinds of artwork that’s not just from Florida. As a woman, I find it vital and important for the natives of Jacksonville to be exposed to a local historical museum, especially looking at the backstory of the founders. A woman put her heart, soul, and time into this museum to be enjoyed by everyone. Needless to say, for the Jacksonville art community, it’s still being enjoyed over sixty years later since the Cummer Museum opened its doors.


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