After a five-month search, the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem has hired Brian Kennedy as its new director and CEO.
Kennedy, now 57 years old, was born in Dublin and has worked for museums on three continents, including the National Gallery of Australia, the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College and the National Gallery of Ireland. He currently heads the Toledo Museum of Art, where he's been since 2010.
The PEM is the oldest, continuously operating museum in the U.S. Kennedy will join the museum as it prepares to open a 40,000-square-foot wing. The galleries will undergo a complete re-installation as part of a $650 million capital campaign.
"It's a very global museum from a small place that was a great port in New England," Kennedy said on the phone from Ohio. "So I think there's a lot of possibility in the age of global travel, digital contacts, international exhibitions and I'm very excited about that."
Kennedy will assume the job from longtime director Dan Monroe. Monroe led the PEM since the 1992 merger of Peabody Museum of Salem and the Essex Institute. In those 26 years, he dramatically expanded the museum's operating budget, endowment and audience.
In hunting for Monroe's replacement, the museum's board president Rob Shapiro, who co-chaired the selection committee, said they worked with consultants, surveyed the staff, and searched internationally. The goal: Find someone who aligns with the museum's mission to create transformative art and culture experiences.
“He really was everybody's top choice because of his personal manner, his deep experience, his passion for art and the power of art to change people's lives,” Shapiro said. “That's exactly parallel to our mission statement.”
One of the major reasons Shapiro said Kennedy was chosen was for his expertise in "visual learning." That expertise dovetails nicely with the PEM’s pioneering neuroscience program, which aims to use brain science to create a more engaging museum-going experience.
“It's a new arena for us. He is deeply committed to education and the power of museums to open people's minds at all ages in all ways,” Shapiro said. “There's a lot of new territory to explore and it’s going to be a distinct new phase.”
Kennedy said a lot of people ask him about the concept of visual learning.
"It took a few years here in Toledo to get everybody understanding about visual language," he said. "Everybody thinks they know how to see, but they've never actually been taught how to see. ... [I]f we understand that what we see is not all of anyone, or any place, or anything, we begin to understand the subtleties and the nuances of culture and art museums."
Kennedy also looks forward to activating the PEM's vast collection — an estimated 1.8 million artworks and artifacts.
“This is a real privilege to help unlock all that is already there,” he said.
A large portion of the PEM's collection, including the Phillips Library, was relocated to a new Collection Center in Rowley last year. That trove is a repository of Salem and Essex Country history. It used to be on the PEM campus in Salem and the relocation caused an uproar among residents and scholars.
“In every place I've been really tried to engage with the community to help to understand what its concerns are,” Kennedy said when asked about the issue. “In a place as historic as Salem any difficulties that have emerged in terms of contention around where a library should be located, or where the history of Salem should be located, is always going to be charged.”
He looks forward to finding balance between the community’s expectations and the practical demands of preserving the library’s stellar collection of manuscripts, books, family letters, diaries and papers related to the Salem Witch trials of 1692 and 1693.
As for the professional side, Kennedy said, “I think we're tapping into a moment when art museums — and the role of art museums — are shifting.”
Kennedy says he's looking forward to returning to New England — "it's the nearest place to Dublin, where my mother is." His daughter, who just welcomed a new child, lives in New Hampshire.
When he arrives in July Kennedy plans on doing what he always does when he takes a new job.
“What I do everywhere is to really immerse myself in people's thoughts about what they really want, what they need, and what they are most proud of in the institutions,” he said, “and that then helps to determine what your strategy should be.”
Kennedy starts his new position on July 15.