Peabody Essex Museum Swings for the $650 Million Fences

In case you missed it earlier this week, a big bombshell was dropped on the Hub art scene, in a good way. Not only did the Peabody Essex Museum announce that they had a $650 million capital campaign underway, but that (drumroll, please) they’d already secured $550 million of it. Yes, that’s roughly $50 million more than the MFA’s vaunted half-billion campaign completed a couple years ago, and there’s still another $100 million to go before the campaign ends in 2016. Combining such giving to these two behemoths, then adding in the ICA, Mass MoCA and others, it become clear that fine art in the Bay State sparkles with billions. Ah, just felt good to write that.

But the amazing thing about the PEM campaign is that it’s getting completed now, in the time of chronic 9 percent unemployment and bipolar fluctuations in the world markets. Much was made about how the MFA was so lucky to complete their campaign in September 2008, just one month before our economy went down Duchamp’s Fountain. In the PEM’s case, they launched the quiet phase of their campaign in 2006, just when the housing bubble was quivering, and they never looked back. Now of course, one could argue that raising money is still possible when you’re going to the people least hurt by the struggling economy, but personally, I’d at least rather see that 1 percent keep the arts thriving here rather than lolling around in their mattresses piled with cash.

So then, $650 million, where’s it going? Here’s the skinny:

The PEM currently has a $280 million endowment, which will get a massive $350 million infusion from this campaign. Then another $100 million will go to new installations and other infrastructure improvements. But the most visible effect of the money will be the $200 million slotted to build a 175,000-square-foot expansion for the whole place. How big is 175,000 square feet? It’s the size of the entire Biltmore estate. This means 75,000 more square feet for gallery space, and other spaces for a restaurant, education programs, and administrative endeavors.

Now of course, irritatingly provincial cityfolk may mutter: “The Peabody Essex Museum? But that’s in Salem! What’s a North Shore place doing raising all that cash?” Such people need to get out more. In my opinion, while the PEM is hardly a secret, I do feel it’s perhaps the most underrated museum in the region. Whether it’s curating a history-defining Mayan exhibit, an overview of contemporary Chinese art, an array of Dutch Masters, or a introduction to its 400,000 volume rare book library–the PEM has become one of the most diverse and dynamic places to see great art and cultural history. It’s no accident that exhibits that premiered here have gone on to the top museums all across the country, from New York to Houston to San Francisco.

It’s a long way from PEM’s origins in 1799, when Salem was one of the new country’s most cosmopolitan international business centers, before its shipping business slipped forever under the long, dark shadow of Boston down the shore. Now, more than 300 years, 1.8 million objects, and $650 million extra bucks later, PEM is poised to claim its rightful place in the sun. Congrats.