Was this a case of glass-ceiling syndrome?
Two years ago, when the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA, named Brian Kennedy, then director of the Toledo Museum, to succeed its distinguished longtime director, Dan Monroe, I had wondered why Lynda Hartigan hadn’t gotten the nod. The PEM’s spokesperson confirmed to me last week that “Lynda [then PEM’s highly accomplished, promotion-worthy deputy director] was a finalist in the 2018-19 director search to identify Dan’s successor.”
Now, after a brief detour to Toronto as deputy director at the Royal Ontario Museum, Lynda is returning to direct the museum that she had so ably served, beginning as chief curator in 2003.
Extolled in PEM’s announcement as “the first woman director of the nation’s oldest continuously operating museum,” Hartigan will assume her new post on Aug. 23. “The staff and community response has been overwhelmingly positive and enthusiastic,” the museum’s spokesperson told me. “With a collaborative spirit and empathetic leadership style, Lynda will bring a focus on institutional innovation and excellence.”
The 2020 press release issued by the Royal Ontario Museum to announce her appointment there provided a good summary of what she had achieved in Salem under Monroe’s leadership:
She was responsible for developing a strategic plan that reimagined the museum’s curatorial practice, introducing a comprehensive and integrated approach to research, publishing, collections planning, interpretation, and exhibitions. Among the highlights of her tenure, she oversaw the creation of a new 120,000 square foot collections center and was involved in the evolution of PEM’s transdisciplinary Art and Nature Center. In addition, Hartigan led the cross-functional interpretation and reinstallation of PEM’s collection in conjunction with the 2019 opening of a new wing of the museum [my link to PEM’s 2019 press release about its Ennead-designed new wing].
In PEM’s press release, Kennedy vaguely explained his sudden departure, less than year and a half into his tenure, as a decision “to pursue a new [unspecified] challenge.” Before coming to PEM, he had been director of the Toledo Museum for almost nine years. Alluding to his “30 years in museum leadership on three continents,” he noted that “this current unprecedented period of racial, social, economic and political turmoil has given cause for serious thinking and new perspectives on the profound changes that are happening in our world.”
This “unprecedented turmoil” had also “given cause” for serious cutbacks at the Salem museum: As reported by Malcolm Gay in the Boston Globe, “Morale [at PEM] plummeted during a pandemic year in which leadership, facing a projected $6 million loss in revenue, laid off 15 percent of its staff.” Sadly, such cutbacks have become a familiar story at financially pressed art museums.
Although Hartigan’s tenure in her new post is likely to exceed Kennedy’s, it’s doubtful that she’s in it for the long haul: At age 70, she could be approaching retirement. (It takes one to know one.) Fortunately, she’s well equipped to hit the ground running!
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