At the age of 13, Brian Kennedy’s mother gave him a book on the history of art. Around the same time, his aunt living in Paris promised to mail him an art postcard every month to nurture his budding interest. Soon he started collecting his own. “By the time I was 18, I had over 5,000 of them,” recalled Kennedy. “I could put all 40 of my Rembrandts down in order of the date they were made and see the progression of an artist’s career right in front of my eyes.”
Some four decades later, his appetite for art is as fierce as ever. On July 15, Kennedy will become the next Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo Director and CEO of the Peabody Essex Museum. He arrives from the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio where he serves as director, president and CEO.
The museum’s hiring search began last fall following the retirement announcement of Dan Monroe, PEM’s director and CEO for the last 25 years. Kennedy will take the helm at a momentous juncture as the museum prepares to open a new 40,000-square-foot wing and undertakes a complete reinstallation of its galleries.
A view from Essex Street of the museum's three-story addition, which opens September 28.
Brian Kennedy brings global perspective and experience to PEM. He has a passion for art and culture and for the powerful effect of art experiences on individuals and communities.
—Robert N. Shapiro, President of PEM’s Board of Trustees.
“Brian and PEM are a perfect match at this important and exciting moment. With creative spirit, clear goals and warmth of manner, Brian will inspire the entire team at PEM in the museum’s next stage of development.”
Sam Byrne, Chair of PEM’s Board of Trustees, called Kennedy “a visionary executive who prioritizes creativity, values innovation and fosters excellence. He embodies the guiding spirit, energy and drive of PEM. We are thrilled to see him build upon the tremendous legacy of Dan Monroe and his transformative leadership.”
Born in Dublin, where his 86-year-old mother still lives, Kennedy studied art history and history at University College Dublin, earning bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees. He 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.
Since 2010, Kennedy has led the Toledo Museum of Art, where he strengthened the museum through significant acquisitions, creative programing and a strategic plan to more deeply integrate the museum into the community.
Like most museum directors in the country, Kennedy said he was aware of PEM’s reputation for creating innovative exhibitions. He was also drawn to discover more about PEM’s world-class collection, in particular engaging with art that is not part of the Eurocentric tradition at the heart of many American museums.
"It is a dramatic realization to consider that the doubling of the world’s population since 1975 means we now have an additional 4 billion people mostly from the countries represented by the collections of PEM," said Kennedy. “This presents amazing opportunities for engagement with our community, nationally and internationally.”
Kennedy views himself first as an “art educator,” with an avid interest in promoting visual literacy, which at its core means the ability to interpret meaning from information presented in an image. Most people tend to hear “literacy” and think in terms of understanding text.
“Our education system is one that privileges learning by digits and letters. That focus diminishes the primary aspect of our learning — which is our multisensory capacity as human beings,” said Kennedy. “To truly be a human being, you have to be sensorially aware.”
Museums, he continued, are uniquely poised to build the essential skills of empathy and critical thinking by exposing people to the experiences of different cultures. “For our minds to stay open, we have to be open to alternative points of view,” said Kennedy. “In my mind, art museums are essentially in advance of where our education system is today and that’s a huge opportunity for us. We must not shy away from advocating for it.”
In the months ahead, Kennedy said he looks forward to meeting with staff, the board, PEM members and the greater community to listen to their ideas. “I think we all learn over time that it is people who make things happen, not buildings or collections, per se. Engaging team-style collaboration always gets better ideas and better results,” he said.
Kennedy and his wife, Mary, have two children, a son, Eamon, 24, and a daughter, Anne, 29, who lives with her husband and young son in New Hampshire. The couple will arrive on the North Shore with their beloved Labradoodle Electra (Lexy).
An appreciation for beauty is not restricted to the art found in museums. Wherever he has lived throughout his career, Kennedy has enjoyed tending roses — a tradition he plans to continue when he puts his roots down on the North Shore.