Newark Museum's new leader sees role of facility growing

By Dan Bischoff/For The Star-Ledger
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on January 02, 2014

Steven Kern will take over from Mary Sue Sweeney Price, who guided the Newark Museum for the past two decades and retired in May. (Handout photo)


Steven Kern, executive director of the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, N.Y., will become the next director and chief executive of the Newark Museum in early February, according to Newark board chairwoman Arlene Lieberman and its president, Andrew Richards.

Kern will take over from Mary Sue Sweeney Price, who guided the Newark Museum for the past two decades and retired in May. The museum will announce the appointment today.

“I’m often charged with populist beliefs,” Kern said in an interview during a brief trip to Newark between the holidays, “because I believe in the idea that museums are for all people, for everyone in the community. … Are our museums educational or are they entertainment? I say all of the above.

“And as we shift in our schools to a core curriculum, I think we’ll see the role museums play in helping to focus on our culture only grow.”

In Syracuse, Kern is known as an excellent communicator, writing a column for the local newspaper and both appearing on and hosting television programming on the arts.

The Everson was founded in 1897, just a few years before the Newark Museum. The Everson also was the first museum to concentrate on collecting American art, a policy that Newark founder John Cotton Dana established when the Newark Museum began in 1909.

The Everson holds a number of important American paintings, including “The Peaceable Kingdom” by Edward Hicks. But it is perhaps best known to its neighbors for its building, designed by I.M. Pei (the architect’s first museum design), and for its innovative film and video programs.

Every summer, the Everson uses the sheer concrete walls at the museum’s entrance as a projection screen, showing both popular films and art videos, such as the work of artist Bill Viola, who was born in Syracuse.

The plaza across from the entrance to the Everson fills with local residents every time. Kern also encouraged the Urban Art Project in Syracuse, which placed objects from the collection in different locations around the city.


The Newark Museum is the largest and best-known in the state, and, in some ways, the flagship for the visual arts in New Jersey.

But in the past few years, after the financial collapse on Wall Street, the institution has suffered a number of economic reversals — including severe cuts in city budget support — that led to major staff layoffs and steep cuts in programming.

The museum has lost scores of staffers and had to eliminate programs that had been staples.

“We lost our manufacturing base in Syracuse many years ago,” Kern said. “What I’ve found is that midsized city museums have to be incredibly nimble in this environment to make an impact. But they can do it. … I didn’t start the urban film program at the Everson, but I certainly encouraged it — it helped establish an undeniable presence for art in the heart of the city, one that everyone can see.”

Kern has served as executive director at the Everson since 2008. One of the reasons the Newark Museum’s board chose him was his ability to form strategic collaborative relationships with historical associations and heritage organizations in Syracuse, as well as with area schools — including the neighboring Syracuse University.

Nancy Cantor was the Syracuse University chancellor at the time, and she will be taking over that same post at Rutgers-Newark this month — Newark is conducting a sort of raid on Syracuse’s cultural leadership.

“He’s just a very good guy,” Cantor said of Kern. “Smart, thoughtful, a good collaborator. I look forward to establishing the same relationship we’ve had in Syracuse here.”

Kern also has been director of the William Benton Museum of Art, Connecticut State Art Museum, at the University of Connecticut. He was curator of European Art at the San Diego Museum of Art; curator of paintings at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass.; and curator of European Art and Exhibitions, and acting director, at the Museum of Fine Arts and George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum in Springfield, Mass.

Kern holds a master’s degree in the history of art from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and two bachelor’s degrees in French language and literature, and art history from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Kern and his wife, Josephine, a native of Amsterdam, are currently looking for a home in the city.

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