SALEM — The new head of the Peabody Essex Museum says the sprawling world-class museum, filled with art celebrating the city's historic maritime trade, is shifting its gaze away from building new gallery space toward the North Shore community and the city's Halloween trade.
This outreach represents the next phase for one of the top-10 art museums in the country, said Brian Kennedy, the museum's Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo director and CEO, in a talk to 150 business leaders at a North Shore Chamber of Commerce breakfast at the Kernwood Country Club Wednesday morning.
"Which is basically turning ourselves inside out," said Kennedy about what he envisions for the oldest, continually operating museum in the nation.
Today, he said, the museum has "stewardship" of 35 buildings, including 22 historic houses as part of its collection. It just opened a 40,000-square-foot gallery adjacent to the historic East India Marine Hall on Essex Street, the museum's first building.
"And what's happened to PEM over 25 years is we became more national, international. We had to do that to really grow," said Kennedy, a native of Dublin. "But we need to be now more local and regional as well. We need to be both and. We've got a lot of work to do."
"We are so pleased to have someone who wants to be a strong collaborator and really sees the Peabody Essex Museum as being the heart of Salem and wants to fulfill that role," said Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll. "What that exactly means, we are still working on, but, to have somebody who is so engaged in our community is just terrific for us."
Kennedy, who is the former president, director and CEO of the Toledo Museum of Art, insisted that the museum's "building phase is over."
"This staff of PEM just delivered a new wing, part of a $125 million building development," he said. "And I want to tell you the building phase is over. We've got enough. We've 600,000 square feet under one roof ... We need to move into a different phase, it's a programmatic phase."
Kennedy also said the communication surrounding the move of the Phillips Library's massive historic collection to Rowley could have been handled better.
Since 2011, the collection has been housed outside Salem, first in Peabody before it was moved to the new collections center in Rowley last year. Some Salem residents say the library should be in Salem.
The state-of-the-art 125,000-square-foot facility in Rowley provides 15 jobs, and is open six days a week and it's free to access.
"But it also means that what's there also needs to be visible in Salem," Kennedy said. "We know that. But there wasn't a space or a place that could take the level of conservation that's required with the level of content that we have on an ongoing basis in the future.
"I just have to come out and say that to you," he said. "It was not done well. It was not done transparently. I don't know why we thought we couldn't share it much, much earlier that the buildings we had couldn't contain this level of material. But they can contain material, and they will. So I pledge that to you, but I just ask you, you have to give me time."
"We've an awful lot of work to do to reconcile Salem with the museum," Kennedy said. "And the No. 1 thing that's come through all the sessions that we've done so far on our strategic plan — and we are working on a master campus plan as well, we've never had one — is that the staff, and the board and our overseers and all those we've engaged so far think that the biggest challenge that we have is to be more engaged in Salem. That's going to take time. And it takes money, but it takes attitude and desire."
The museum has spent $11.5 million over the past several years on Plummer Hall and Daland House, he noted, referring to the former Phillips Library buildings, which are still not open to the public. He asked for patience as work continues inside them.
"But we will do it, and we will open those beautiful rooms once again to the people of Salem and everyone who visits here," he said.
And with Halloween literally bringing a half-million visitors to the museum's doorstep, Kennedy wants to take advantage of this as a business proposition.
"Here's people. Go get them, they are right there," he said.
What the PEM has done occasionally to celebrate Halloween, he said, "will become symptomatic. You can't do Halloween once. You know, it happens every year."
Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at email@example.com or on Twitter at @TannerSalemNews.