The following story appeared with a typo in the December print issue. We apologize for reporting PEM’s expansion as costing $20 million instead of $200 million.
The new year will mark the true beginning of PEM’s $200 million expansion. Staying mostly in its current footprint, the museum will add a second atrium, additional jobs in the creative sector and become one of the largest art museums in the country. We asked PEM’s Chief Marketing Officer Jay Finney to answer some questions about how locals are going to benefit most from the improvements.
Q: By now, Salem residents are seeing evidence of work toward the expansion, what with the big crane in front of the museum and such. What do you think are the top three things that Salem residents will benefit from when the expansion is over?
A: A greatly expanded museum with more of our collections on display and special exhibitions that we create and that we bring in from around the world. Also locals will see a greatly expanded public program schedule and more school groups visiting the museum. There will be a destination restaurant that fronts Essex Street and we’ll have a secondary entrance all that will enliven Essex Street and make the downtown more interesting.
Q: Can you tell us what to expect with the new restaurant and construction of a roof deck that will take advantage of water views?
A: We’re about to hire a food service consultant who will look at food service for after hours and during museum operating hours. The building will be going up five stories, but each story is set back from the next, so it will create opportunities for terraces and on 5th floor, views of the harbor. Also on the 5th floor, there will be space for events, lectures and films, and we’re talking about a gourmet chocolate bar. There are also plans for an enclosed Japanese or Chinese garden, open to the sky. It will be landscaped and quite beautiful.
Q: The museum’s contemporary art initiative is so exciting. The Stephen Jones Hats show and continuing Freeport installations are drawing a different crowd. Upcoming shows like Midnight to the Boom, Nick Cave and the the new collection from Iris Apfel are all examples of PEM’s dedication to this initiative, as well as PEM’s hiring of a Contemporary Curator a few years ago. How do you think this focus will benefit locals who still might not get to the museum much these days?
A: The museum has always been collecting contemporary work. To continue to collect and show art of our time is nothing new for this museum. Our Contemporary curator has shown unusual exhibitions, but the museum isn’t making a dramatic left or right turn. It’s just a balance of work from the past with, say, a show of African American modernists coming next year and Nick Cave, who is certainly a contemporary artist. We have a dialogue from the old and the new throughout our galleries. There’s always been a mixture. We aren’t a history musuem. This is part of a continuum and didn’t stop at the turn of the century. We are a museum of art and culture. We will be bringing on a new curator of Chinese art and a new curator of Indian art and a new curator of Fashion and Textiles. There will be a gallery named for Iris Apfel. Iris was a perfect person to connect with because she thinks like we do, that it’s important to have a mixture of art and culture and different cultures and timeframes and materials.
I would think that the artistic community working on the North Shore and in the greater Boston area would be excited to see another museum have a significant commitment to contemporary art just like MFA, ICA or Isabella Gardner Museum.
Q: How do you think PEM reflects the direction that Salem is headed culturally? Can you draw a line between the beginning of the museum and Salem’s days of trade and the PEM of today and Salem’s current creative economy?
A: Our history of bringing objects and culture back from India and China, Indonesia, Africa and native tribes gives Salem the connection to the rest of the world. The seeds of our collection came from our founders. Salem’s economy changed drastically from trade and Salem became another New England town that focused on industry. The past expansions brought the museum closer to the vision of the museum’s original founders. Now we can bring collections from around the world out on the floor.
Salem is not just about history. We have a long and glorious history that includes the beginning of our country. But like the rest of America, we are in a global society. We have traded on our history, but always from the beginning have had a global perspective. That’s what the museum came back to in 2003 and will push toward in 2017. There will be more to Salem than just its connection to the past. It connects us to cultures both near and far and you hope that’s what Salem becomes known for as well. Our sister city is in Japan and our restaurants are focusing on international cuisine. There is an international flavor to Salem that we think will be reflected certainly in the museum, but also as the city looks outward.
Q. Locals may be receiving your construction updates via email. What are some other ways they can keep up with what’s going on these days? Are there more public talks in the works, planned evenings for sharing expansion plans? If so, can you provide us with some dates?
A. Each time trucks and cranes come in, we send notices. The best way is to sign up for our eblast about construction and any road closings. Essex Street will remain open throughout the process. During the first quarter of the new year, we will reveal design drawings at community meetings. Our Director of Community Affairs, Claudia Chuber, can communicate those plans. The website will have updates and we will try to place stories and engage the press in reinventing museum.
The building is just a shell within which we will be creating experiences. It’s not that we ran out of space, but we are taking advantage of the incredible generosity of a number of donors to add back of house features like loading docks and things we couldn’t get to in the first expansion. The majority of the $650 million is going toward the endowment and then infrastructure improvements, additional staff and enhancing facilities to do more special exhibitions.
We will continue to hold community meetings to explain where the museum is going. We’ll be using every media outlet that we can to update people on all the major milestones. The nitty gritty of construction will be posted and emailed to those who sign up.
Q.How do you see Salem and PEM sharing a culturally symbiotic relationship in five years that benefits both the museum and the city?
A. What we’ve seen since we reopened in 2003 will continue. The museum was wonderful for revitalization of the downtown. It gendered a level of quality of life to the city and attracted people moving here, new retail and restaurants. I don’t think the museum is solely responsible for that, but it certainly was a catalyst. Five years from now, the museum is still on its same footprint, but has gotten larger and improved.
The symbiotic relationship that the city and museum has now will continue and be amplified. There will be infrastructure improvements and improvements to the Essex Pedestrian Mall. The city and the museum will be working together to improve that from one end to the other. All of that will continue — revitalization, walkability and an attractive place for people to come work, play and stay.
We want the process to be as transparent as possible. We want the community to be informed ahead of issues that might come up. We want to listen to the community’s input along the way. There will be some disruption and a lot of changes going on in this city and we want to be a positive force. I would like to avoid some misunderstandings that took place in the last go round. That’s why we hired a Director of Community Affairs to get feedback and collect information from those in the area and to inform people ahead of time and be proactive about it.
We will continue to add to the critical mass and gravity pull of downtown. All the museum can offer a visitor, of course, continues to be free. Even if you’re not a museum goer, the improvements to quality of life in the city will continue by an expanded museum.
Dinah Cardin is the Editor-in-Chief of North Shore Art*Throb.