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Brian P. Kennedy to step down as director and CEO of Peabody Essex Museum

Brian P. Kennedy was photographed last year at Peabody Essex Museum. Tuesday's surprise announcement gave no reason for his departure, other than that Kennedy was leaving to pursue an unspecified “new challenge.”Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

The Peabody Essex Museum announced Tuesday that its director and CEO Brian P. Kennedy would step down at the end of the year, ending a tenure of just 17 months.

The surprise announcement gave no reason for Kennedy’s sudden departure, other than that he was leaving to pursue an unspecified “new challenge.”

His last day will be Dec. 31.

The museum’s board will form a search committee for a new director and CEO. In the meantime, Robert M. Monk Jr., PEM’s chief of facilities operations, planning, and security, will lead the museum.

“After thirty years in museum leadership on three continents, this unprecedented period has given me insight and perspective into the profound changes that are happening in the world and I have decided to pursue a new challenge,” Kennedy said in a statement. “The Peabody Essex Museum has undergone a remarkable transformation in recent decades, and is now positioned for its next phase as a global museum that enriches its local, regional, and national communities. It has been an honor to lead the museum and I am proud of the work we have done.”

Kennedy did not respond to an interview request. A spokesman said the museum would be making no further comment on the director’s departure, calling it a “personnel issue.”


Kennedy assumed director duties at the Salem museum in July 2019. He took over after the retirement of Dan Monroe, who helmed PEM for more than a quarter century, leading the museum through a period of unparalleled expansion to its physical footprint, endowment, and audience share.

Kennedy, who led the Toledo Museum of Art before arriving at PEM, has had a long career in museums, including stints leading the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra and the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College. At PEM, Kennedy oversaw the opening of the museum’s new 40,000-square-foot wing and had been working on a strategic plan for the museum.


His tenure, however, has been dominated by the pandemic. After closing the museum in March, Kennedy oversaw a painful 15 percent staff reduction across all departments in June. At the time, the museum said it would sustain a $6 million loss in revenue because of the pandemic, estimating it would significantly reduce its operating budget in 2021.

“[W]e laid off twice as many people as I’ve ever had to lay off, and this is my fourth directorship,” Kennedy said in an interview earlier this year. “It was necessary to move into the next financial year.”

Salem Mayor Kimberley Driscoll praised Kennedy’s work at the museum.

“Brian helped lead the Peabody Essex Museum through a period of significant transition and challenge,” she said in a statement. “While I am sorry that he has moved on to new endeavors, I am hopeful that Brian’s strong work at PEM as a leader who prioritized community engagement and forward thinking will endure as the museum looks to hire their next director and CEO.”

The museum reopened in July following a four-month closure. It remained open as of press time, although peer institutions in Boston have been required to close this week amid rising case counts.

“Dr. Kennedy led the museum through the challenges associated with the pandemic crisis, began a strategic planning process, and continued work on diversity and inclusion,” Stuart Pratt, chair of PEM’s board of trustees, said in a statement. “PEM is in a strong position moving forward, having opened a new Collections Center and a new wing in 2019, completed many new and innovative installations of its collections, and successfully adapted to an entirely new COVID-operating environment.”


Malcolm Gay can be reached at Follow him @malcolmgay.