The museum has also capitalized on good timing — international art, folk and aboriginal art, and vintage and vernacular photos (another strength) are all the rage in the art world. Out of this comes a distinctive institutional personality — a scholarly but often playful mix of old and new, Yankee and international, fine, folk, and decorative art — that throws out traditional aesthetic hierarchies. This perspective helps the contemporary international art presented by the Peabody Essex feel more culturally grounded than new foreign art seen elsewhere, which often falls into an Esperanto style common among artists jet-setting between arts fairs and museum biennials.
The result has been a run of terrific major exhibits. Fairbrother guest-curated “Painting Summer in New England” in 2006, an eye-candy survey of summery scenes by a who’s-who of 20th-century artists. Hartigan organized this past summer’s Cornell retrospective, which, after having moved to the Bay Area, the San Francisco Chronicle called one of that area’s 10 best shows of 2007. It is likely the last word on Cornell for the next two decades. The same can be said of this past winter’s “Samuel McIntire, Carving an American Style,” a survey of carving and architecture by the 18th-century Salem artist, who — though less well-known than Cornell — was a major early American talent. It was organized by the museum’s American decorative art curator, Dean Lahikainen.
Exhibitions increased from three in 2001–’02 to seven in 2004, 2005, and 2006, and then to 10 this past year. Attendance grew from 116,000 in its last year in the old building to between 186,000 (2007) and 247,000 (2006; the museum attributes this peak to the popularity of “Painting Summer”).
“Other institutions have not figured out how to be populist and serious,” says O’Brien. “And I think the Peabody Essex has.”
So how does the Peabody Essex rank among its peers? The scope and scale of its special exhibits place it above Harvard, Brandeis’s Rose Art Museum, and the RISD Museum. And the Peabody Essex is easily on a par with the ICA. It hasn’t matched the ICA’s strength: mid-career surveys of living artists, such as Anish Kapoor and Philip-Lorca diCorcia. Nor does it offer the ICA’s vigorous and notable performance schedule. But the Peabody Essex’s major solo surveys are the definitive exhibitions on the artist for a generation, while the ICA and MFA’s (see Edward Hopper and “David Hockney Portraits”) ain’t.
The Peabody Essex’s theme shows are more rich, substantive, surprising, and fun than what the ICA and MFA have lately accomplished. Its exhibit design has surpassed the ICA and rivals the MFA. “Samuel McIntire” offered dramatic theatrical installations of architectural details and interactive components that had visitors guess which pieces were by McIntire and which were knockoffs.
“Design is a very emotional kind of thing,” says Hartigan. “Emotion is very important as a means for people to learn.”
Still, the Peabody Essex can’t compete with the MFA’s strong suit: old European masterwork surveys such as “El Greco to Velazquez: Art During the Reign of Philip III” or “Symbols of Power: Napoleon and the Art of the Empire Style.” The MFA’s small and mid-size shows, particularly its historical surveys, also tend to be sharper (when they’re not kissing collectors’ asses) than what the Peabody Essex mounts — the cloyingly quirky group show “Polar Attractions” or the slick, shallow photos in “Body Politics: Maori Tattoo Today,” for example.