At various times in her life, Lynda Roscoe Hartigan wanted to be an artist, actress, and interior designer. But life takes quirky zigs and zags. Today, Hartigan is the James B. and Mary Lou Hawkes Curator at the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in Salem, a position that calls on many aspects of her earlier aspirations.
As head of PEM’s ambitious curatorial and exhibition program, Hartigan serves as leader, interpreter, collaborator, decision-maker, and fundraiser. “Fundraising can be a lot of fun,” Hartigan says of the task, which many managers of nonprofit institutions instead liken to battling in trenches. Simply put, she loves art and sharing it with people of all walks of life. “You have to have some visceral response to the art you work with,” Hartigan says. “I have a very strong penchant for pushing the button to make people pay attention to things that have been overlooked.”
Now in her 12th year at PEM, Hartigan genuinely loves her work, speaking about it as if she’s living the best dream ever. Her position places Hartigan squarely at the heart of the esteemed museum, which has an annual budget of $30 million, staff of 250, and volunteer corps of 100-plus.
PEM’s collection, which dates to 1799, today consists of a breathtaking 1.8 million works, including approximately 800,000 photos. Hartigan is especially proud to build collections of works that are sometimes overlooked, including African-American art and American folk art. “We’ve taken a strategic approach to building the collection,” Hartigan says. “One thing we’ve done is go full tilt into the present, with contemporary art and artists.” To keep PEM’s art organic and progressive, she helped create a fashion initiative to support the museum’s outstanding textiles collection.
Hartigan has a refreshing anti-elitist streak, driven by a belief that art belongs to everyone. “Aspects of our culture think art is elitist,” she says. “But creativity exists in the world around us in multitudes of ways. That’s a good measure of what I want people to tap into, and what we’re doing at PEM.” She relishes organizing exhibitions because they are a form of communication and “can make ideas visible. The whole idea of an exhibition is as a public act, the notion you are sharing.”
Her philosophy that art should be shared was heavily influenced by her girlhood. Her parents raised their children in Scranton, Pennsylvania, teaching them that by marshaling their self-sufficiency and independence, they could achieve anything. “I grew up in a house where exploration was deeply encouraged,” Hartigan says. “There were lots of lessons in elocution, art, ballet. There was the notion that learning was important, rounding yourself out.” Her father, a surgeon, treated patients in need for free; her mother, Hartigan says, “had a philosophy of ‘Do good.’”
When Hartigan was in third grade, the family lived across the street from Everhart Museum, Scranton’s small art and science museum, and Hartigan visited frequently. After attending Bucknell University, where she delved into art history, she chose a master’s program at The George Washington University because it meant she
could do an internship in 20th-century painting and sculpture at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) in Washington, D.C.
“I came home in a way,” Hartigan says. “It confirmed for me that I wanted to be a curator.” She eventually became chief curator of SAAM. “I’ve been a constant arranger all my life, for visual effect, emotional effect, or experiential effect,” she says. “One of the reasons I’m doing what I’m doing is that I’m genuinely fascinated by the collection of people’s hearts, minds, and imaginations.”
In the Marblehead house she shares with her husband, Roger Thompson—the editorial director at the consulting firm The Bridgespan Group in Boston—collections of vintage household appliances, such as toasters from the 1930s through the 1950s, share space with photographs, textiles, and works by self-taught artists. She says she loves the look of streamlined, spare interiors, but, as she adds, “I’m just not sure I could live that way.”
In her spare time, she practices Pilates. “It fascinates me too because it’s somewhat intellectual,” she says. “It’s about the connection between mind and body to create an effect or get a result, a different way of watching yourself.” She has a son, Pierce, who lives in New York City, and a stepdaughter, Kirsten, in San Francisco.
Hartigan is a natural connector of people, art, and history. “I love conversation between the past and the present,” she says. “I believe creativity is a form of communication, just as stories are. How we shape what we live with, what gives us joy and hope, what makes us think differently, is part and parcel of how I think creativity is part of communication. It’s important to share creativity.”