SALEM, Mass. — One thing has stood out in the resume of Los Angeles County Museum of Art curator Austen Barron Bailly since Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum announced last week that she would become its new curator of American art in January.
Of course, she’ll bring more American art exhibits to the Salem institution — particularly more painting. Her past projects have focused on Alex Katz, Eric Fischl, John Biggers, Thomas Hart Benton, Pueblo Pottery, Childe Hassam, John Singer Sargent and landscapes of the American West. But most notably, the Peabody Essex says, she was “managing curator” for the 2007 “full reinstallation of LACMA’s permanent American art collection galleries.”
This is critical experience as the Peabody Essex was looking for a curator to “collaboratively re-install PEM’s American collection … in ground-breaking ways that promote comparisons and connections” as part of its project to open “up to 75,000 square feet of new galleries” in 2017.
In other words, Bailly will help lead the museum’s public rethinking of all of American art history. As part a major building expansion project, which has the museum planning to add dozens of new staffers. It’s one more step in the amazing rise of the Peabody Essex Museum.
Until about a decade ago, the Peabody Essex had been a good but sleepy museum, focused primarily on Colonial America, natural history and treasures imported from around the world via Salem’s maritime China trade. But Director Dan Monroe, who arrived from Oregon’s Portland Museum of Art in 1993, has turned it into one of the most thrilling museums in the region and one of the best in the world.
The turning point was probably 2003, when the museum opened its new Moshe Safdie–designed wing plus a 200-year-old merchant’s house shipped in from China. That year also saw the hiring of chief curator Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, formerly chief curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.
Hartigan’s impact was most evident in the magical, once-in-a-generation Joseph Cornell retrospective that she organized for the museum in 2007—one of the best exhibits in the world that year. But it was also a public signal of the sort of ambitious work she wanted from her staff.
The Peabody Essex’s strength in American art is fine art and crafts before, say, 1900, American maritime art and Native American art. The museum may have the best collection of Native American art in New England — great historical works augmented in recent years by newly acquired contemporary indigenous art of the Americas (though its curatorial vision here has been mixed).
But the strengths — and limitations — of the permanent collection have not defined the museum’s recent programming. Over the past five years, it has mounted major exhibits of art of the Americas from the distant past to brand new works. Shows have featured Cornell, Ansel Adams, Richard Avedon, Maya art, Hudson River School paintings, contemporary Native American art and Samuel MacIntire design. More quietly, the museum has been modestly augmenting its permanent collection with, for example, the relatively recent acquisition of a 19th-century Hudson River School landscape.
All of this is part of what I like to image is a crosstown rivalry that’s developed between the Peabody Essex and Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (though the museums would probably politely decline such competitive comparisons). In 2010, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts debuted its new $345 million Art of the Americas Wing, which was part of an astonishing $504 million fund-raising campaign. A year ago, the Peabody Essex announced that it had already raised $550 million toward a $650 million goal to expand the museum’s endowment and fund a $200 million, 175,000-square-foot expansion to the museum plus $100 million for new installations of the collection and infrastructure improvements. (The museum reports fund-raising now totals $570 million.)
Both museums have been exhibiting Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo’s rich collection of 17th-century Dutch and Flemish paintings (including a Rembrandt) in apparent attempts to get the Marblehead couple to donate the collection to their respective institution. Then last summer, the MFA hired away Nancy Berliner, the Peabody Essex’s distinguished Chinese art curator.
When the MFA opened its Art of the Americas Wing, it trumpeted that it was telling a revisionist history that looked not just at the United States, but also significantly included Latin America. (At the time, this was more an expression of the MFA’s goals than reality as the collection was thin in non-U.S. works.) Call it a coincidence that a major strength of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where Bailly has been a curator since 2001, is Latin American art—both in its permanent collection and in its exhibitions.
The upshot is that the region’s two biggest encyclopedic art museums have been upping the ante. And lately, the Peabody Essex — in fund-raising, exhibits and curatorial talent — is in the lead.