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Andrea Brownlee is an art historian, curator and educator who has been director of the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art since 2001. A graduate of Spelman (B.A., English and art history) and Duke University (Ph.D., art Hhstory), she guided Spelman’s Curatorial Studies Program and was senior strategist for the Atlanta University Center Art History + Curatorial Studies Collective.

An alumna of the Getty Leadership Institute and a MacArthur Curatorial Fellow at the Art Institute of Chicago’s Department of Modern and Contemporary Art (1998– 2000), Brownlee was the inaugural recipient of the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center’s Nexus Award and received the David C. Driskell Prize in African American Art and Art History in 2013. 

On December 1, Brownlee becomes the George W. and Kathleen I. Gibbs director and chief executive officer of the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens in Jacksonville, Florida. In the coming weeks, Spelman will name interim leaders and begin a national search for the museum’s future director.

Brownlee talked to ArtsATL about the liminal space she occupies on the cusp of relocating, the life-altering power of mentorship and the solace she finds in the natural world. 

Andrea Barnwell Brownlee + David C. Driskell

“David was a lion,” Spelman College’s Andrea Brownlee says of David Driskell, her mentor. (Courtesy of Brownlee)

ArtsATL: What is it about the Cummer Museum that compelled you to accept a new leadership of job in the midst of a pandemic?

Andrea Brownlee: When I first started having conversations with the museum’s search committee, I wasn’t looking for this opportunity or thinking of relocating to Florida. The timing was not optimal for a number of personal reasons, but here we are.

I was completely smitten by all the Cummer has to offer, what’s in store and the potential for growth. I’m very excited about the museum’s assets — from the incredible staff to the incredible collection — and the city of Jacksonville itself. I also think about the amazing gardens on the St. Johns River and consider how important being outside has become to all of us. What a reprieve  it is to be in nature. And I couldn’t turn down this exceptional opportunity that offers beauty both indoors and out.

ArtsATL: When you talked to ArtsATL  for the Legacy Series in 2018, you said, “I’m more fired up by the person who visits our museum and asks, ‘What in the world is going on?’ I love creating opportunities where people can come in and we duke it out.” How will you keep making good trouble at the Cummer?

Brownlee: One of the things the search committee made clear to me is that not enough people in Jacksonville make the Cummer Museum a regular destination. So part of my charge is to figure out how to make it more enticing and irresistible, both in person and virtually. How can we provide access that’s accessible for all? How can we make sure that everything, from the gardens to the exhibitions, to the permanent collection are irresistible? 

The Cummer is on the threshold of something extraordinary, so building upon what it’s been doing for almost 60 years is really quite a privilege. In this instance, good trouble will situate itself in me inviting people to the table, cultivating relationships and future-proofing. 

ArtsATL: Of all your accomplishments as museum director at Spelman, which makes you most proud?  

Brownlee: I am so very proud of leading the museum’s mission-focused exhibition agenda. The museum staff has worked very hard to present exhibitions that expand curricular offerings and expand the visual arts offerings in Atlanta, the region and beyond. As I reflect on the extraordinary artists that the museum has been privileged to present — including Iona Rozeal Brown, Zanele Muholi, Deborah Roberts, Amy Sherald, Mickalene Thomas and so many others as well as the institutions with which we have forged meaningful partnerships — I am bursting with pride.

Andrea Brownlee

Andrea Brownlee with her kindergarten teacher, Margarette Peterson, in Atlanta at the David C. Driskell Prize Ceremony in 2013.

If I have to single out the accomplishment for which I am most proud, it would be the leadership role I have played in cultivating a future generation of African American museum professionals. Spelman has a long history of guiding students into the field. As an alumna of Spelman, I am indeed evidence of this history. Being on the front lines of formalizing curatorial studies at Spelman and leading this passion project stands out as a professional highlight. Students from the pilot phase of the program who are now working in museums and pursuing graduate degrees have already begun to stake their claim and make their mark on the field. The future of the field is significantly brighter because of their ideas, commitment and involvement. It is humbling to consider the impact that I have made. 

 ArtsATL: What challenges might your successor face? 

Brownlee: She or he will face challenges that directors of many small and midsized institutions face: how to innovate when resources — both human and financial — are limited. I have often discussed how the Spelman Museum staff has always boxed above its weight class. The pandemic moment shepherds in another challenge for all museum directors. Museums are at various stages of delivering content digitally. Visitors are increasingly becoming more accustomed to this format, and it is clear that digital exhibitions and remote experiences are here to stay. The campus community, like the rest of the world, is anticipating what the next normal will be. We will all be able to visit museums in person again once it is safe to do so. The next museum director will grapple with devising strategies to satisfy the thirst for digital content while also compelling audiences to visit and to experience art in person.

ArtsATL: Please give me three great reasons to visit the Cummer Museum and Jacksonville, once it’s safe to do so.

Brownlee: Jacksonville is on the move. Reports say one thing in particular that is simultaneously daunting and exciting: The people leaving New York and California have Jacksonville on their mind. It’s a destination that has culture, recreation and beaches — like Miami with a more affordable cost of living. The city has a pace that people tell me is revitalizing. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the climate and the weather. In terms of the Cummer, specifically, you’ve got 5,000 objects and growing. You have this very easy drive from Atlanta. I hope people will make it a destination if they are looking for a respite, want to say hello or come splash  on the beach. I’m here for all of it!

ArtsATL: Your beloved mentor, Dr. David C, Driskell was an avid gardener. What did you learn by observing him in his garden in Maine that will inform your stewardship of the Cummer’s gardens? 

Brownlee: David Driskell, in many ways, is orchestrating some of my decisions today. Whether wittingly or unwittingly, he’s definitely always top of mind. When I remember the time we spent in his garden, I think of what takes to make any sort of garden successful. I marvel at the incredible skill, talent, knowledge and patience required. I’m patient in a lot of ways but, as you can tell from the plants around my house, that’s not one of them [laughs].

There are three distinct gardens on the Cummer’s campus, and gardening was one of [namesake] Ninah Cummer’s real passions. The opportunity to grow the garden staff, make horticulture an ever greater highlight of the Cummer and expand my knowledge and skill set in that capacity is very intriguing to me. I can’t wait to add that to my arsenal.

In the meantime, there’s this amazing tree [The Cummer Oak] that’s a lot of people’s favorite spot, and which I can’t wait for new visitors to see.

The fabled oak tree at the Cummer Museum. (Photo by Toni Smailagic)

ArtsATL: When you accepted your Driskell Prize in 2013, your kindergarten teacher, Margarette Peterson attended the ceremony. Can you talk about the impact that mentors like Mrs. Peterson, Dr. Driskell and Richard Powell have had on your development, personally and professionally.

Brownlee: Whew! [voice breaks] . . . that’s a big one. I don’t post often on my Facebook, but the opportunity to post Mrs. Peterson’s name alongside that of Dr. Richard Powell’s [my art history professor at Duke University] during Teacher Awareness Week means the absolute world to me. These incredible bookends are such a big part of my life because they believed in me at different phases of my career. They have been so kind and so caring during this moment, and have always been concerned with the whole me. Not the academic me, the whole me. Whew! That is . . . that’s a lot.

ArtsATL: Dr. Driskell died of a coronavirus-related pneumonia in the spring, and your mother, Beatrice W. Barnwell, died this fall. What has been the most comforting thing you’ve heard, read or experienced that has helped you reconcile the existential crisis of death?

Brownlee: So many people have been extraordinarily generous as well as patient during this time. And nature has truly been a fortress and the source of great comfort to me. The rainbows that I saw on our last trip to Jacksonville were out of this world. I think of how much time David Driskell would spend outside, whether it was pressing grapes to make wine or tending his garden, and I smile. And there’s a tree right outside the courts where I play tennis that is indescribably beautiful and bright that reminds me of my mother because autumn was her favorite season. 

ArtsATL: What will you bring to the Cummer in 2021 that you could not have offered had you not spent nearly 20 years at Spelman? 

Brownlee: My time at Spelman taught me that collaboration is the only way to achieve really meaningful and mammoth goals. I’m so proud of all we’ve accomplished for such a young institution. And I use “we” deliberately because it was never a one-woman show. It was team effort for 19 years.

I have spent time with the Cummer’s search committee, board members and executive team members. I will have a much larger staff of arts professionals and individuals to collaborate with going forward. But I remain mindful that if there weren’t people in the boiler room, those of us on the front line could not reach our goals. I hope to bring a real clarity of thought to all of the parts of the machine so it can work on all cylinders and build upon the amazing things the Cummer has done in the past.

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