Patron stories

I am a listener of stories. All the wonderful people I meet in my work at PEM have amazing stories about what art means to them, how creativity plays a role in their lives, why they feel connected to their past through objects… and much more.


Capturing stories – polaroids at a patron event. Photo Credit Kathy Tarantola.

My role as Director of Individual Giving brings me in daily contact with our patrons and with people we invite to become patrons.

What is it that they love about PEM? What does art mean to them in their lives, today, yesterday and tomorrow? How do they engage with creativity? What memories does the museum elicit in them?

These are just some of the questions I ask people. And the responses I get are wonderful… story after story filled with emotion and passion, love and nostalgia, hope and enthusiasm. I would like to share just a few of these stories with you!

Gail and George


Pictured from left: George, Gail, and myself. Courtesy photo.

Gail and George taught in the public schools near their home in Marblehead for 30 years; they met in the teacher’s lounge, in fact – over coffee! George was an art teacher and Gail taught biology. They were committed to their students and loved their careers.

After retiring, they found that PEM was a place where they could each engage with what they loved about teaching: students and creativity. So Gail joined the Art and Nature Center Committee and worked alongside other educators to strengthen the museum’s experiential learning offerings.

She also attended many school visits as an observer and loved the special evenings when the families of our students would be invited to come see the work created by the kids. George would come too, and I can see them in my mind’s eye, walking around, admiring the kids’ work and engaging with the families. After devoting decades of their lives to students, they were now, in their retirement, continuing to share their love of learning with students. This true generosity of spirit is something I think about whenever I see student groups in the museum, as I did just today.

And I remember Gail. George continues to be involved here at PEM, though without his partner by his side we see him less. But he’s made it clear that his continued support is in loving memory of Gail and all they valued together.

Sam and Sheila


One of many happy times in the home of Sam and Sheila. Courtesy photo.

Friends of this blog will remember Sam and Sheila, who so generously donated their entire collection of paintings to PEM, transforming the American Art Department. I had the honor of working with Sam and Sheila on this gift – and spent many happy hours in their home, hearing stories about the paintings and about their life.

A painting of Mount Chocorua would remind them of a hike to the top, when their kids were young. They would giggle over the memory of Sam struggling to haul the camp stove along so they could cook a big can of Chef Boyardee beefaroni. Telling this story brought sparkles into their eyes, and I was reminded again of the power of art to transport us to another time and place.

Susie and Bob


Opening of American Epics at the Nelson Atkins Museum. Pictured from left: Bob, Curator Austen Barron Bailly, Elisabeth Buell, myself and Susie. Courtesy photo.

Susie and Bob had never been to PEM before, but they arrived for the opening of the Thomas Hart Benton: American Epics exhibition straight from their home in Omaha. As collectors of Benton drawings, several of which we were borrowing for the show, they were eager to see our exhibition. They were blown away. They tell the story of wandering through the gallery, learning a whole new way of thinking about Benton and their drawings.

They met other Benton collectors and began to realize that they were part of a collecting community. This realization brought them into a whole new connection to Benton and his world; it opened up their thinking about how collecting is a reflection of values. Through PEM, their shared passion for Benton was amplified, and they left renewed in their love for the artist…and for the power of collecting.

We saw Bob and Susie again in Kansas City, at the opening of the Thomas Hart Benton exhibition at the Nelson Atkins Museum. Curator Austen Barron Bailly, my colleague Elisabeth Buell and I heard more stories — and shared some of our own – over drinks after the opening. What an amazing evening!



Myself and Mary. Courtesy photo.

Mary, a longtime patron who is in her 90s, traveled to Salem from Boston as a small girl and remembers the museum from those long ago days. Her grandfather was an attorney, and one of his clients was a prominent Salem merchant. Grandfather would bring the grandkids to call on his client (something Mary thinks was probably not very welcome!) and would promise them ice cream if they behaved (I am glad to know that this form of encouragement has had such a long life!).

She tells stories of visiting the museum, learning about the history of Salem and the ports the vessels sailed to. And she credits her lifelong love of learning about people, places and cultures — through art in particular — to our museum.

To this day, Mary travels the world visiting museums, following the curiosity that was born in her here, over 80 years ago.


A small group of paintings from the Robbins Collection installed in the Putnam Gallery. Photo credit Allison White.

As you can see, the stories I hear are so moving and inspiring and they remind me of the power of this museum and of our collective yearning for connection. All of these people I have mentioned – and countless more – have found their way into this special community and made it their own. Their stories are, indeed, a part of this place now.

I’d love to hear yours!

One Comment

  1. Ann says:

    Long before I moved to the Salem area, I knew about the PEM. My late father used to take me on weekend afternoons, beginning in grade school. The museum was a favorite destination for us. I marveled at the figureheads, the curiosities that merchants brought to Salem from the Far East, and, of course, the paintings. Now, living on the North Shore for several decades, I’m thrilled to see how this beloved museum has blossomed, and return to it again and again.

Leave a Comment