The spark that ignited Brian Kennedy's interest in art came in the form of a 13th birthday gift, specifically, a post card from one of his aunts depicting Sebastiano Mainardi's Madonna and Child. By the time he graduated from high school, he had 5,000 art post cards, each meticulously annotated with details about the works and their creators.
Director of the Hood Museum of Art since 2005, Kennedy holds B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees from University College in his native city of Dublin, Ireland. He became assistant director of the National Gallery of Ireland at the age of 27, and moved to Australia in 1997 to become director of the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, a post he held until 2004 when Dartmouth came calling.
Colleague Alan Dodge, MALS '88, who directs the Art Gallery of Western Australia in Perth, says that Kennedy's move from public museums to academia is a natural evolution. "Brian is interested in bringing together diverse disciplines to provide new perspectives." That, says Dodge, plays to Dartmouth's strengths and suits what he describes as "the College's commitment to inquiry at the highest level."
Still, it's a long way from Australia to New Hampshire, and reflecting further on what had to be epic interview voyages, Kennedy says, "Every time I came here, Dartmouth became richer with possibility. In the end, I realized that to stay vital and passionate, being exposed to Dartmouth students would be key." Kennedy was particularly impressed with the Hood's senior interns, a group of graduates-to-be interested in pursuing careers in art. Says Caitlin Roberts '07, Kennedy is "intensely approachable. He took me seriously and was always on the look-out for interesting things the museum could do."
Thoughtful, articulate, mercurial, and passionate, Kennedy believes that there is an art to seeing that is learned through discipline, and that direct engagement with art is necessary in today's world. "Integrating art into the way we live is an essential requirement of contemporary life. We're saturated with visual culture but we lack skills of analysis and interpretation," he says. "People look at things, but much of the time they don't see them." Adding that educational systems have evolved around an ever-more sophisticated ability to interpret and analyze textual documents, Kennedy says he wants the Hood to "involve people with objects, teaching them to look, see, describe, analyze, and interpret."
Kennedy has recently completed a strategic planning effort intended to coincide with the Hood's 20th anniversary and carry it through to its 25th in 2010. The plan seeks to build the museum's visibility, make more effective use of its collections, deepen its connection to the community, and put art in everyone's path using Dartmouth's campus as a palette. "When President Wright told me he wanted to see art in unexpected places," recalls Kennedy, "nothing could have delighted me more." On June 6, a monumental work by the Chinese artist Wenda Gu was unveiled in Baker Library and earlier in the spring, an Inuit Inuksuk was built in front of McNutt Hall.
For faculty, Kennedy and members of the Hood staff have become indispensable partners. Joe O'Donnell, senior advising dean at Dartmouth Medical School (DMS), describes a recent collaboration in which DMS students participated in a program designed to heighten their observational skills when making diagnoses. "Working with curators, medical students observed and discussed paintings," explains O'Donnell. "They were then shown photos of specific disorders. What was remarkable was that their experience observing the paintings dramatically improved their ability to recognize medical conditions." Kennedy, says O'Donnell, has an expansive understanding of how art underlies every human pursuit. "Art is an essential component of whatever lives our students are building."
The Hood has already collaborated with the Tuck School of Business, the Rockefeller Center Leadership Fellows Program, the Montgomery Endowment, the Library, and a host of divisions within the arts and sciences.
"Kennedy brings fresh ideas to everything he undertakes," says Provost Barry Scherr. "He has already expanded museum programming in important ways, but more than that, he has a flair for describing individual works and exhibitions in ways that fascinate audiences."
"The road we've been on in the past two years has been about looking outward," says Kennedy, "but the aim is not just to increase our audience—that's an effect. Our aim is to become more relevant. From the beginning, Dartmouth insisted on the importance of teaching with objects," he adds, noting that the Hood is the sixth manifestation of a museum on the campus and that the College's collections began to take shape in 1772. "This means that our students have a unique opportunity to learn about visual culture through historically significant works of art."
But the Hood, Kennedy points out, is not just one thing. "We are Dartmouth's museum. We are a museum of art. We are a teaching museum, and we are the museum of this region."
Throughout his career, Kennedy has been known for his expertise in museum management, his scholarly output (he is the author of five books), and for the ways in which he probes the creative process. "Working in museums has helped me to engage profoundly with my humanity as body, mind, and spirit," he says. "The essence of art is a celebration of the human spirit. It is an idea in the mind given reality by the senses which causes an effect on the emotions. Conversely, the purpose of a museum is to have an effect on the emotions perceived by the senses that causes us to contemplate the idea in the artist's mind."
As for Kennedy's effect on Dartmouth in the two years he's been here: "It's quite simple," says O'Donnell of DMS. "He opens up another eye."
By LAUREL STAVIS
Questions or comments about this article? We welcome your feedback.
Last Updated: 5/30/08