Works in progress: Toledo Museum of Art's Adam Levine reflects on a tumultuous first year

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·7 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

May 2—There have been leaders over the centuries who have asked their supporters to judge them not by their words but by their actions.

After a first year fraught with a worldwide pandemic and cries for social justice, newly minted Toledo Museum of Art director Adam Levine has the same request for those who visit the museum.

"Listening is important, learning is important, but acting is by far the most important thing," Levine said. "I can say any number of different things to dissuade people, to convince them that the museum is on the right path, but nothing is going to replace doing."

It is with that knowledge that Levine, now with the first year as TMA's 11th director under his belt, has plowed forward through unforeseen challenges, and yes, sometimes discontent, to come out on the other side in what he says is a strong position for the museum in the 21st century.

"The dialogues about the future have been really exciting. Adam has come at this with just a great passion, but also a great view of what museums should be in the future," said museum board of trustees president and chair Randy Oostra.

SETBACKS AND TRIUMPHS

When Levine was chosen in January, 2020, from a field of more than a dozen candidates to return to Toledo's museum (he served in various TMA positions before he left in 2018 to serve as director of the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens in Jacksonville, Fla.), the coronavirus was barely on the radar in the United States.

Advertisement

The 34-year-old spent his first 90 days either working remotely or with limited in-person interaction with staff before the museum reopened in late June, and mitigating potential financial and operational issues.

Attendance dipped from its average 380,000 annual visitors to about 269,000. With coronavirus safety protocols still in place, Levine expects this fiscal year's attendance to be only about 25 percent of a normal year, which he said appears to be standard across the museum industry.

Earned income also took a hit: The museum lost somewhere around $1.5 million year over year, with the absence of such things as parking fees, cafe visits, and special events that had to be canceled, Levine said. The museum usually runs on a budget that sits between $16 million and $17 million.

Fund-raising, however, seems to be on a different trajectory. Levine said the museum is in line to reach its annual contributed income goal this year, which the museum reports will be a 38 percent increase over last year's fund-raising total. The museum declined to release fund-raising figures.

Some of those initiatives have been front and center in the last few months, including a sizable donation from local residents Joe and Judith Conda and daughter, Susan Conda, to help fund the salary of a new manager of access initiatives to create a more disabilities-friendly museum. The museum was also awarded $126,000 from ProMedica Health Systems earlier this year to support its Art Out of School program for youth in Toledo's Junction neighborhood, an area that originally was seen as an industrial hub but has become disinvested over the last couple of decades.

SPIRIT OF BELONGING

As promised when he took on the top TMA position, Levine spent his first 100 days as director listening. Then, he listened some more.

"Here's one of my lessons learned, personal reflection, from my first year. My job is not to do 100 days of listening, it's to do 365 days of listening every year, and 366 on Leap Year," he said. "There is no daylight there, right? Every day we should be listening."

Levine said he has met in-person and virtually with hundreds of people over the course of his thus-far short tenure to start chipping away at a vision to create a museum with a more diversified collection and a greater sense of belonging to its community.

A more difficult lesson learned last June came after Levine released a letter to staff stating that the museum would not take a political stance in the aftermath of George Floyd's death in May, 2020. The letter was met with backlash from some who said the museum should absolutely take a stance as an anchor institution in the community.

Although Levine said that incident did not start the museum's conversation on diversity and inclusion, Floyd's murder helped focus attention on addressing systematic injustice both at the museum and in society. Later that month, the museum hired Jayroman, a business strategy company in Perrysburg, to help museum staff with outreach and bias training sessions.

The institution revised its recruitment and hiring practices to include newly redefined roles, including the recent hiring of Rhonda Sewell as its first director of belonging and community engagement. In the process of that revised practice, the museum expanded its minority presence on its leadership team by 25 percent.

Levine met with minority leaders in the community to determine new inclusion paths forward, including Christine and Calvin Sweeney, pastors at Tabernacle Church, and leaders of Art Tatum Zone, a community revitalization organization focused on serving children and their families in the Junction neighborhood.

Currently, an art instructor from the museum provides lessons to more than 150 children through the organization, which hopes to expand with the museum's help, said Christine Sweeney, Art Tatum Zone executive director.

She said her perception of the art museum and its mission changed after she and her husband were introduced to Levine during a community event at the museum in October.

"That was the first time we really had a chance to meet Adam and to hear his heart for bringing the community and the art community together," she said. "For myself, up to that point I kind of thought of the art museum as a place to visit, to look and not touch, and not really a place to be involved and be engaged. But after hearing Adam and hearing his vision for the community to feel welcome at the art museum and then for the art museum to be welcomed into the community, it really was a new page for us."

Oostra gives credit to the young leader, who like other community leaders had to often pivot to face unpredictable challenges during the pandemic but still jumped in headfirst anyway to start tackling long-term goals for the museum.

"He really put a priority on reaching out to people and he's done a really nice job of aligning people in a very short period of time," Oostra said. "It seems in a lot of ways he's been back a lot longer than a year."

The Junction neighborhood initiative is a small piece of a larger project in the form of TMA's five-year strategic plan, which was released in March. Levine said he relied on the board, staff, and community members to guide the plan to fruition.

A NEW NARRATIVE

As he moved through the galleries in the early morning before the doors open to the public, Levine stopped to hit a switch on the wall, illuminating a 16th-century sculpture titled "The Risen Christ." It's something he's inclined to do quite often.

"I love the lighting of that," he said.

The sculpture is only one of many pieces that fits into a narrative in the museum's galleries, and a rewriting of those spaces is part of the museum's strategic plan. It's a project the director says hasn't been done for about 40 years.

For example, the Cloister, a popular area to visit in the museum for its Medieval and spiritual history, will be refreshed with new art this fall, and will reopen in December to coincide with an exhibition of arms and armor from ancient Greece and knights of the Middle Ages. The space hasn't been updated since 2002, and Levine is confident it can tell a broader story, just like in other spaces in the museum.

The museum has hired a curator of modern and contemporary art and a consulting curator of ancient art and is on track to hire a curator of American art and consulting curators of both Asian and African art. As more curators are added, they will start to reimagine gallery displays and installations, which will be an important part of the museum's growth process, the director said.

"We talk about how the world's story has changed in one year, well there have been 39 others, not without the same dislocations necessarily, but a lot has happened in that time, and it's time for us to change our narrative to reflect that," Levine said.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting