Call the Toledo Museum of Art at off-hours, and you might be surprised who answers the phone. “I’m Brian Kennedy, the museum director,” rumbles the low voice on the other end of the line, in a friendly Irish brogue. No, it’s not cutbacks — the well-endowed museum is a regional gem with a deep collection — but rather a style of doing business, and one Kennedy plans to bring to the Peabody Essex Museum as its new executive director and CEO.
“ ‘Just do it, people will love it!’ ” Kennedy said, laughing as he recalled a board member’s urging that he become the museum’s official recorded-voice greeter. “But there was another motive as well, and that is that we, as museums, need to be open in as many ways as we can.”
On Thursday, the Peabody Essex said that Kennedy, 57, will succeed longtime director Dan Monroe, who announced his retirement in October. Over a tenure of a quarter-century, Monroe has stewarded the Salem museum from a regional concern to a top-tier institution with a global profile. When he took over in 1993, it had an operating budget of $3 million a year and an endowment of just $23 million. As he leaves, with more than $600 million of a $650 million capital campaign already raised, the museum’s budget is $33 million and its endowment, at half a billion dollars, makes it a major player on the world stage.
Monroe, 74, also oversaw several ambitious expansion projects, the last of them set to open in September. It will add 40,000 square feet to the museum, including 15,000 square feet of gallery space. That brings its total gallery footprint up to near 100,000 square feet, making it one of the 20 largest art museums in North America.
The question of who could follow a director so closely identified with his museum weighed on the Peabody Essex’s selection committee. “We wanted someone who shared the mission. We’re not changing the mission,” Rob Shapiro, president of the board of trustees, said on Thursday. “They’re big shoes to fill, and Brian has the capacity to do so, but in his way,” Shapiro added. “Brian has his own style, but he has all the same core values and principles that Dan has. They have a great deal of respect for each other, and just as importantly, they like each other.”
Kennedy, who describes himself first as an “art educator,” has served as assistant director of the National Gallery of Ireland, director of the National Gallery of Australia, and director of the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College, where he helped broaden the museum’s collection in Native American and Australian aboriginal art alongside its Modern holdings.
In Toledo, Kennedy again focused on contemporary and indigenous art programs, keying in on the museum’s role as a resource for learning. “I’ve always said the Toledo Art Museum is two words: art education,” he said in a phone interview. “That’s an indication of the need to emphasize communities and audiences. I believe our obligation to teach is something that’s very live in the culture right now.”
Kennedy will arrive in July, shortly before the opening of the new wing and in advance of an envisioned reinstallation of the entire collection. Throughout, his priority will be the museumgoers’ experience. “The whole arc of development of art museums over the last century has been the arc of a move from being collections-based to being audience-based,” he said. “Getting that balance, of not seeming overly preoccupied with objects and becoming the porous museum, is the essence of what we need to do.”
With his outward focus, Kennedy is very much in tune with the institution where he will take the helm. Monroe repeated as a mantra the need to engage with audiences, rather than preach to them, and was unafraid to experiment with unconventional strategies (part of the latest expansion was an initiative to incorporate neuroscience in exhibition and research efforts). Kennedy has also shown interest in broadening the application of museum resources, in sometimes surprising ways: During his tenure at the Toledo museum, it launched its Center of Visual Expertise, a visual literacy research institute aimed at promoting industrial workplace safety.
Kennedy’s deep commitment to the art of indigenous communities fits well with the Peabody Essex Museum’s priorities. Monroe helped write the Native American Graves and Protection and Repatriation Act, and the museum has made headlines with its stewardship of Native American artifacts. Under Kennedy’s tenure, the Toledo museum, a repository of historical European treasures, committed to the acquisition and display of Native American art, both contemporary and historical. It culminated, most recently, in the exhibition “Expanded Views: Native American Art in Focus,” which is on view there until April 28.
Kennedy’s passion for art education is evident, even in a brief conversation. “Our education system is one that privileges numbers and letters,” Kennedy said. “But true literacy is sensory literacy,” drawing on the visual realm, and such immersive, holistic learning, he says, “will be a wave throughout museums for decades to come.”
Kennedy also makes a priority of contemporary art and how it can reframe historical collections, calling the Peabody Essex, with its eclectic mix of global cultures and seafaring paraphernalia, “an extraordinary opportunity to mix the present with the past.” At the Hood during his tenure, the African-American artist Fred Wilson was invited to work through the museum’s collection with the legacy of slavery in mind. “I think of museums as political institutions, with a small p,” he said. “That means we have a duty to show artists that speak to what’s happening in society right now. What does it mean to truly take care of our history? That’s a question we need to address.”