SALEM — Brian Kennedy has been in Salem for just a little over two weeks, and the new director of Peabody Essex Museum still has much to learn about his new city. One thing that has surprised him?
"I had no idea Monopoly was made here. To find that there was a game history with the Parkers was amazing," Kennedy said, sitting in his corner office looking out on the Pedestrian Mall Thursday afternoon. "That's a huge part of the reputation (of Salem). It should be, but I've had nobody mention that to me."
It should be no surprise that branding is on Kennedy's mind as be begins his tenure leading Peabody Essex.
"What is your brand?" he asked. "If you say that the brand is significantly your identity, and our colleagues have heard me say the most important thing really is your reputation, and your reputation is what other people say about you, then it's not what you say about yourself."
Kennedy, 57, was tapped in March to succeed Dan Monroe as the museum's Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo director and CEO. Monroe retired this year after leading the museum for more than two-and-a-half decades, dating back to the merger of the Essex Institute and Peabody Museum of Salem in 1992.
Born in Dublin, Kennedy has held senior leadership positions at art museums around the world, including in Ireland, Australia and the United States. He most recently led the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio before coming to Salem.
"I was only the ninth (director) since 1901," Kennedy said of his time in Toledo. "What we did since 2010 was to make the museum a significant part of the redesign of downtown. Most of the major leaders of Toledo — whether in industry, or the Toledo Mud Hens (minor league baseball), the automotive industry, banking — were on the board of the museum."
The city of Toledo was struggling when Kennedy took over. Manufacturing and other industries in the "Glass City" took a major hit with advancing technology, and the downtown emptied. Kennedy saw an opportunity for the museum to change the narrative.
"That started to permeate so much of what happened in the city, and the downtown was significantly revived," Kennedy said. "The museum was very much seen as a key player in all of the organizations that were established. We went from the 22nd century committee to downtown development, to ConnecToledo."
A similar story has played out in Salem, though over a broader timeline. That can most recently be seen in the city's eventual embrace of Halloween tourism and, under the leadership of Mayor Kim Driscoll starting in 2006, its efforts to control the chaos and blend it into the year-round economy.
Meanwhile, Peabody Essex continued to grown on its own, and is now one of the 20 largest museums in the United States, when measured by gallery space and endowment. It is home to 1.3 million works and almost two dozen historic buildings, and will unveil a new $150 million, 40,000-square-foot wing on Essex Street next month. When the time came for the museum to look for a new leader, Kennedy wasn't specifically looking for a new venture, according to Rob Shapiro, president of PEM's Board of Trustees.
"He was adored in Toledo," Shapiro said. "There are some very sad people at the museum in Toledo and in the city of Toledo. He was a museum leader and a civic leader of the highest regard."
So what pulled Kennedy to Salem? Intrigue, he said.
"The global sea captains going around the world, the sense of place-making that would be involved because of a small city with neighborhoods around the North Shore and enormous collections, having undergone massive development over a quarter of a century," he said. "Museums in general lead me to today, (where they need) to be much more involved and engaged in their communities in so many ways, in order to be relevant in the future. The more I looked, the more interested I was."
That takes Kennedy to the city's brand. Today, it faces challenges rooted in its identity — most specifically in the housing crisis city officials have been grappling with for the last several years.
"I saw this in Dublin," Kennedy said. "If you create — and it's difficult when you have a rising rental market — a possibility for an active, creative population of artists, the urban fabric isn't an open canvas for everybody...
"What to place where is important, so that goes to what we talked about earlier — your brand," Kennedy continued. "What's the reputation you want to create? The most freely available art canvas in the country? Or is it to speak to values that are shared in the community which might become a part of a brand?"
That's where Kennedy's awareness trails off. He has still only been her for a few weeks, and is meeting people for the first time.
"I think it's generally agreed that this is a very tolerant city. It's a very open city and welcoming city," Kennedy said. "An art program that could speak to harmony and tolerance ... coming from sea captains but also indigenous given all the native people who lived in this place... there's tremendous possibility."
At the end of the day, Kennedy sees in Salem "great optimism for the future."
That's shared by Driscoll, who has talked with Kennedy only for "very small minutes" in his first couple weeks.
"I'm glad he's here," she said. "He wants to do a lot of listening, and there's a lot of opportunity for PEM and the city to collaborate more."
Where that goes remains unclear, but Driscoll said she's encouraged by the new leader of the city's cultural juggernaut.
"There's a symbiotic relationship that exists with large organizations, where we need them and they need us," she said. "It's an opportunity to reframe that."