Ninah May Holden Cummer: The Woman Behind Florida’s Treasured Cummer Museum

Women have played a major role in the growth of art, in all its forms, but a few women may have played the biggest roles of all. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, for example, was a prominent sculptor before turning her studio into an art gallery, and we now have Whitney Museum of American Art; Helen Clay Frick made sure that her father’s art collection was made available to the public to enjoy for years to come, and so we have The Frick Collection. Abby Aldrick Rockefeller, Mary Quinn Sullivan, and Boston’s Lillie Bliss wanted to create an institution for contemporary art and so The Museum of Modern Art was born.  Eventually, their own personal art which includes works by Van Gogh, Picasso, Cezanne, and Seurat are now a part of MoMA’s permanent collections.  

Of these cultural benefactors, the website says, “Without their unwavering support for the arts of their time, it’s hard to imagine what the history of modern art and art institutions, treasured by the greater public, would be like today.”

Woodward Studio, Ninah M. H. Cummer (1875 – 1958) in her garden, c. 1929, gelatin print, The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens Archives

Woman Around Town would like to add another name to that list: Ninah May Holden Cummer. 

The Cummer fortune was forged through a successful lumber business run by Ninah’s husband, Arthur Cummer at the turn of the 20th century. They met while both were students at the University of Michigan, a remarkable fact considering this was the late 1800’s when it was not customary or proper for a woman to pursue higher education. 

Winslow Homer (American, 1836 – 1910), The White Rowboat, St. Johns River, 1890, watercolor on paper, 21 1/8 x 27 in., Bequest of Ninah M. H. Cummer, C.0.154.1.

The lumber trade flourished, they settled in Jacksonville, Florida, and Ninah’s “keen interest” in art grew into an impressive collection with over 60 pieces including works by Norman Rockwell, Andrew Wyeth, Winslow Homer, and James McNeill Whistler. After her husband’s death in 1943, she continued to pursue art in all its forms while becoming interested in Jacksonville’s efforts to conserve, preserve, and develop the city’s green spaces.

The garden view

In one of the choicest spots along Jacksonville’s St. John’s River sits The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens where, in accordance with her will, the Cummer estate, art collection, antiques, and gardens would become a public museum. She wrote, “My contribution to my Art Museum will be to furnish my pictures and the location, and after that others must carry on.”  With her collaboration with noted horticulturalists and designers like the Frederick Law Olmstead firm, the Museum’s River-front courtyard features four distinct gardens which are perhaps the most popular areas for enjoying the quiet, the views, and the magnificence of the immense and century’s old Cummer Oak Tree.

“Ninah Cummer was a trailblazer,” says Holly Keris, the Museum’s Chief Curator.”  A dedicated philanthropist who was committed to making her adopted hometown better on many fronts – from preserving greenspace to providing playgrounds to supporting the Urban League.  Ninah invested her time and money into myriad causes that touched her heart. While the most visible aspect of her generosity is the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens, she didn’t seek attention or recognition during her lifetime. In fact, she hoped that news of her gift wouldn’t be made public until after she passed.” 

A replica of the Cummer’s living room, with portraits of Arthur and Ninah

Inside, the museum is a treasure trove of both permanent, and visiting exhibitions like the Tattoos in Japanese Prints, for example, which traces the body art back to its early 19th century beginnings as a way to declare a romantic devotion, or to punish criminals. The Museum’s Permanent Collection, which spans from 2100 B.C. through the 21st century, first began with Ninah’s original 60 pieces, and has now grown to over 5,000 acquired by gift, purchase, or bequest. One collection that resonates today is the Fake News & Lying Pictures, which chronicles how the artists as far back as the 17th century used printmaking techniques to provoke, amuse, and parody their readers and the leaders of the day.

Cummer, who also supported children’s causes would be pleased to see the Museum’s Art Connections gallery where children can learn and experience the many varieties of art forms, with one area dedicated to showing kids how to read and understand the labels placed alongside the art item.  There are educational tours for pre-kindergarten up to high school and college with virtual tours, and field trips.  The Women of Vision program provides opportunities for women who are blind or have low vision to gather regularly at the museum to explore the arts, the gardens and make their own art.  

“Her gift, her love of northeast Florida, and her profound sense of optimism about the future,” says Keris, “set a high standard for us all as we work towards realizing her goal of the Museum being a ‘center of beauty…for all the people of Jacksonville.’ “

The exterior of the museum, the garden view, and a replica of the Cummer’s living room, with portraits of Arthur and Ninah – Photos by MJ Hanley-Goff

For more information, go to the website for the Cummer Museum.

About MJ Hanley-Goff (166 Articles)
MJ Hanley-Goff has been contributing to Woman Around Town since its inception in 2009. She began her career at Newsday in the early 90’s and has continued writing professionally for other New York publications like the Times Herald-Record, Orange Magazine, and Hudson Valley magazine. Former editor of Hudson Valley Parent magazine, she also contributed stories to AAA’s Car & Travel, and Tri-County Woman. After completing her novel and a self-help book, she created MJWRITES, INC. to offer writing workshops and book coaching to first time authors, and also college essay writing help to students. MJ has recently made St. Augustine, Florida her home base, and is thrilled and honored to continue to write for WAT and the amazing adventures it offers. Despite the new zip code, MJ will continue to keep a pulse on New York events, but will continue to focus on the creative thinkers, doers, and artists wherever they are.