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Peabody Essex vaults into top tier by raising $550m

Both gallery space and endowment will be expanded

By Geoff Edgers
Globe Staff / November 6, 2011

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In 2016, visitors to the Peabody Essex Museum will see new galleries, a new restaurant and roof garden, and more. But out of sight will be something museum leaders say is even more essential: the firm financial footing of a much richer endowment.

Located in downtown Salem, the Peabody Essex has announced a record-breaking fund-raising campaign and an expansion plan that will make it one of the largest and most well-endowed art museums in Massachusetts.

The museum has raised $550 million - with plans to bring in $100 million more - in a campaign that is the biggest ever for any state museum.

The $650 million totaleclipses the previous record set by the Museum of Fine Arts with its $504 million campaign, completed in 2008, for its own recent expansion.

Once the Peabody Essex’s campaign and expansion are completed in 2016, the museum projects that it will have an endowment of $630 million. The MFA’s current endowment is $548 million.

Flexing that kind of fund-raising muscle is sure to get attention, especially during an economic recession.

“This is big, really big,’’ said Patricia Jacoby, the former MFA deputy director who led that museum’s fund-raising effort.

The Peabody Essex will devote $350 million of the campaign total to its endowment, a move the museum says will propel its endowment into the top 10 among art museums nationwide.

Of the rest of the campaign, $200 million will fund the museum’s 175,000-square-foot expansion. Another $100 million will pay for infrastructure improvements and other initiatives.

With these plans, the 212-year-old museum will nearly double the amount it can draw each year from endowment proceeds, raising the percentage of the annual budget the endowment covers from its current level of 24 percent to 55 percent.

That will create stability even in times of economic turmoil.

The museum’s focus on endowment is a departure at a time when institutions often emphasize building expansions to entice donors.

“Too many times art museums have found themselves investing way too much money in an expansion project and then not have the capability to support it long term,’’ said the Peabody Essex executive director, Dan Monroe. “This is a bit unorthodox, but we’ve got a strong financial base, and we’re thinking about the long term.’’

The expansion will add up to 75,000 square feet in gallery space, along with more education space and improvements for storage and conservation.

The Peabody Essex’s 2003 expansion, designed by Moshe Safdie, will remain untouched, as will the historic East India Marine Hall.

Because of its limited footprint, sections of the museum built in the 1950s and 1980s - spaces currently housing a restaurant and utilities - will be demolished to make way for new construction.

The Peabody Essex has hired London-based Rick Mather Architects, who have done design work for the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond and several projects in England, including the Wallace Collection in London, the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, and the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. This will be the firm’s largest project to date.

News of the Peabody Essex’s campaign impressed other museum directors. Michael Conforti, director of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, often went to the Peabody Essex as a boy growing up in Bradford.

“I never thought anything like this could happen in Essex County,’’ he said. “It should not be unlinked to the campaign at the MFA. One has to recognize that it’s a double whammy in terms of breathtaking support and, for me, surprising support on the part of the Boston community.’’

Glenn Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, said that the Peabody Essex’s campaign should put to rest the idea that it is not part of the Boston museum community.

“Maybe that perceived divide no longer is all that relevant,’’ he said. “The Peabody Essex has actually managed to generate enormous support from this community, support that rivals anything in Boston proper. Thinking about it, North Shore, South Shore, may not be pertinent anymore.’’

As for who the major donors are, Monroe and other museum leaders refused to provide names, saying they wanted to keep the emphasis on the mission and to make sure not to diminish the efforts of smaller donors by shining a spotlight on the few biggest givers.

But the museum’s board is stocked with wealthy philanthropists. Samuel T. Byrne, cochairman of its Board of Trustees, is a managing partner and cofounder of the investment firm CrossHarbor Capital Partners. Sean M. Healey, the other cochairman, is chairman and chief executive of Affiliated Managers Group, a global asset management company with about $300 billion in assets.

Also on the board are investments guru George Putnam, Ropes & Gray partner Robert N. Shapiro, Fidelity Investments fund manager Scott Offen, and Rose-Marie van Otterloo, who, along with her husband, Eijk, has built a world-class collection of Dutch and Flemish art.

Eijk van Otterloo is a founder of Grantham, Mayo, Van Otterloo & Co., a firm that manages more than $100 billion.

“The wealthy are still really wealthy,’’ said Jacoby, who retired from the MFA in January. “This campaign, I assume, is like ours. The bulk of it came from the board of trustees and overseers, and you can say that this is an indication of the strength of that board, most of whom I presume are North Shore types. If they have this much on hand, it’s an indication that the trustees care.’’

The Peabody Essex’s fund-raising effort has been underway since 2006.

Monroe said that the last five years have been part of the “quiet’’ campaign, the term used when an institution raises money without announcing plans to the public.

“We’re pretty happy with where we are,’’ he said. “In fact, we’re incredibly gratified.’’

Monroe said it did not give him special satisfaction to top the MFA in terms of total money raised or endowment.

“I’m very competitive when it comes to delivering on our mission, but we have never been driven by ‘let’s see if we can have the bigger campaign,’ ’’ said Monroe. “We found the MFA campaign was a plus for us. It demonstrated within the region and beyond that there was a capacity to really make those types of investments.’’

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com.