Andrea Barnwell Brownlee Brings Radical Change to the Cummer Museum
The longtime Spelman director brings her time, talent and penchant for disruption to the Jacksonville art institution.
When history came calling for Andrea Barnwell Brownlee, she let it go to voicemail.
The groundbreaking curator was perfectly happy in her 20th year as director of Spelman College’s fine arts museum in Atlanta, so she didn’t think much about ignoring a recruiter’s phone call in early 2020. The caller was inquiring about her interest in directing the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens more than 300 miles away in Jacksonville.
But a gentle nudge from a good friend can alter the course of history. One of Brownlee’s mentors, Dr. Johnnetta Cole, convinced her to reconsider. Cole is a pioneer in her own right, having been the first Black female president of Spelman College.
“She is someone that I trust and have trusted for decades,” Brownlee said. “Someone who cares about my family, someone who has been a champion of my work and my thinking and my health and my you-name-it.”
Brownlee picked up the phone and called the recruiter. Not long after, the museum announced Brownlee as its new director on Oct. 7, making her one of only four Black female directors of mainstream art museums in America. And it won’t be business as usual around the Cummer Museum. Brownlee’s resolve to transform the museum makes clear there will be more history-making in her future.
I believe being disruptive is a responsibility, and I don’t mean in a way that causes friction and fissures, I mean in a way that disrupts previous thought.
— Andrea Barnwell Brownlee
Placing her vision for radical change at the museum on a scale of one to 10, at first Brownlee responds with an assured eight-and-a-half. “It’s actually higher than that,” she says later.
In the past, such a response might have elicited pearl-clutching at the Jacksonville institution, which celebrates its 60th anniversary in 2021. Not anymore.
It’s exactly the mindset the Cummer has been searching for. The job posting even called for “a mix of conventional, yet disruptive thinking.” Now this line has become somewhat of a mantra for Brownlee, who’s saved it in her phone to look to as a guiding principle.
“I believe being disruptive is a responsibility, and I don’t mean in a way that causes friction and fissures, I mean in a way that disrupts previous thought,” Brownlee said.
At first, the Spelman director was skeptical of the Cummer’s commitment to shaking things up.
“I don’t have a sense that I know how comfortable you are with being uncomfortable,” Brownlee remembers telling a committee member. But with the institution’s resounding reassurance, Brownlee is ready to help them cozy up to the uncomfortable. “They have indicated that it’s time for a new feast, and it’s time to do that together.”
That new feast will be served inside the museum and out, behind the scenes and in ways the public will recognize. Some of her vision for a more inclusive environment is already being realized. Today the museum announced four new Board of Trustee members, all of which are people of color. Visitors can also expect new staff members, artwork that represents diverse backgrounds and a greater focus on reaching minority audiences.
Brownlee’s leadership will position Jacksonville’s Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens as one of the most progressive museums not only in the South, but nationally.
“I do know there are communities that aren’t quite there yet, but there are other people who are ready to dive in,” Brownlee said.