BOSTON — When it was announced this month that former Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts President Mary K. Grant would be returning to Massachusetts in January to take the reins of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate, it put a new spotlight on the fledgling institution's struggles to attract a sustainable audience and better engage young people with its mission.
From a Berkshire County perspective, state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, told The Eagle that the museum of civics and history and Senate training center is off the Western Massachusetts radar.
"Many people out here in the Berkshires don't know the institute exists," she said.
Fairview Hospital President Eugene "Gene" Dellea, a longtime political ambassador to the Berkshires and friend to the Kennedy family, agreed and said, "It's still somewhat of a secret. Hiring Mary Grant was a good decision, but one of her challenges is to build that attendance. It's an issue."
Dellea will be doing his part this month, bringing a busload of visitors from the Berkshires region to enjoy the institute and the Boston area. Farley-Bouvier said she hopes students from Pittsfield can soon get there, too.
"You have to get people there and you have to get them engaged, which is a challenge for a lot of museums today," Dellea said. "It was the senator's dream and initiative to give that opportunity and to have a lasting memory, not so much about him, but about education and showing the future generations about the opportunities in government and how it worked. It's a beautiful facility."
The tracks for the institute were laid before Kennedy's death from complications with brain cancer in 2009. In his book, "The Kennedy Legacy: Jack, Bobby and Ted and a Family Dream Fulfilled," Vincent Bzdek interviewed former staff and other Kennedy family observers during Edward Kennedy's final days.
Paul Kirk, former Kennedy assistant and Democratic National Committee chairman (later appointed to fill Kennedy's role upon his death), told Bzdek that creating a living center to understand the role and power of the U.S. Senate was "the single most important thing, other than family and health, that Sen. Kennedy is focused on. He will be gratified if things go forward as a salute to him and an institution he loves, at a place he loves."
Kennedy, in anticipation of seeing the institute come to fruition, is quoted as saying, "The United States Senate is one of our forefathers' most brilliant democratic inventions. To preserve our vibrant democracy for future generations, I believe it is critical to have a place where citizens can go learn firsthand about the Senate's important role in our system of government."
Kennedy never got to see his dream realized, but his wife, Victoria "Vicki" Reggie Kennedy, leads the institute's board of directors and remains a champion of her husband's legacy.
A public investment
Ground was broken on the $79 million project in 2011, with federal and state funds, covered by 30-year bonds floated by the University of Massachusetts Building Authority. The Edward M. Kennedy Institute and UMass are responsible for owing the debt service, according to a 2015 analysis of the institute's funding by Commonwealth Magazine. The publication also reported that UMass also granted the institute a 99-year lease on the land on which the museum sits, at Columbia Point on the UMass Boston campus.
The 68,000-square-foot facility was strategically constructed adjacent to the well-visited John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, established in 1979, in tribute to perhaps the best known member of the Kennedy family. It also abuts the Massachusetts Archives facility, which includes the Archives, Commonwealth Museum, a branch of the Judicial Archives, the Massachusetts Historical Commission and the State Record Center. Together, they make for a rich destination for any history buff, scholar or researcher.
Alone, the Edward M. Kennedy Institute represents a stately representation of modern architecture designed by Rafael Vi oly, with sleek lines of white concrete contrasted by a gray composite that makes up the upper level. Inside, it contains the impressive feat — a full-scale representation of the Senate chamber that visitors can fully interact in. This is supplemented by state-of-the-art, interactive, technology-driven exhibits designed by Ed Schlossberg of ESI Design, with several teams of software and multimedia developers.
The institute was projected — with support of traffic from its notable neighbors, its centerpiece Senate chamber, along with a training program for new Senate members — to draw as many as 150,000 visitors annually, according to The Boston Globe.
It opened on March 30, 2015, with great bipartisan fanfare and community celebration. The lineup of luminaries who gave remarks at the dedication included President Barack Obama; Vice President Joe Biden; Secretary of State John Kerry; U.S. Sens. John McCain, Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey; Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker; as well as Vicki Kennedy, Ted Kennedy Jr. and Patrick J. Kennedy; former U.S Senate Majority Leaders Tom Daschle and Trent Lott; and the institute's president, Jean MacCormack, retired chancellor of UMass Dartmouth.
In his keynote remarks, Obama said, "The John F. Kennedy Library next door is a symbol of our American idealism. The Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate is a living example of the hard, frustrating, never-ending, but critical work required to make that idealism real."
It was legislation and groundwork fought during the nearly 50 years his constituents kept Ted Kennedy in office.
But, Obama acknowledged, this is work that the next generations will have to fight even harder to elevate and pursue.
"It's hard for our children to see, in the noisy and too often trivial pursuits of today's politics, the possibility of our democracy," Obama said. "And this place can help change that."
But change takes time, and so will building up an audience to the Edward M. Kennedy Institute, which has drawn about 62,000 visitors annually since opening, including a total of more than 30,000 students. In comparison, the John F. Kennedy Library draws a steady average of about 200,000 visitors a year. The Institute must also generate the revenue it needs to keep up with its debt service, in addition to supporting operations and growth.
Supporters of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute say that this can be achieved, and believe the potential for growth and outreach there is innumerable.
"When the JFK Library opened up in 1979, things started out slowly there, too," said Dellea, a longtime collaborator of the Democratic Party who has supported the work and campaigns of Edward and Robert Kennedy, and continues an entrusted friendship with members of the Kennedy family.
Dellea said of Sen. Kennedy, "He loved the United States Senate; that was his life. He just loved it. But he also knew there was a lack of knowledge of younger generations in totally understanding the workings of government. [The institute] was to be an opportunity to see how it works."
He said he supports the selection of Grant as a successor to and collaborator with MacCormack, and believes that Grant is someone who can put the Edward M. Kennedy Institute on a track toward building the momentum, enthusiasm and the gravitas its founders have hoped for.
Dellea said Grant, "knows people and has strong affiliations. She can really kind of bring this thing together. But when you start out, it's difficult."
James J. Karam, chairman of the institute's board of directors, lauded MacCormack as "a guiding force in getting the institute open and getting operations up and running." He said she "has as done an outstanding job as interim leader of nearly three years," and has put together a strong team to help support Grant's transition into place.
"We know that we have a terrific set of programs," Karam said. "Our visitors are learning about how our government works, and leaving having pledged to make a difference in their communities."
Since its opening, the institute has continued to have a bipartisan draw, with presenters ranging from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga. Biden made a return visit last year to tout his so-called Cancer Moonshot Initiative to double the rate of progress in cancer research and treatment by 2020.This month, the 19th U.S. surgeon general, Dr. Vivek Murthy, delivered an address there on the state of the nation's public health.
Said Karam, "We are bringing together senators from both sides of the aisle down in D.C. for meaningful conversations on where we can find common-ground solutions."
This fall's lineup of events, programs and speakers also seems to strive to keep that momentum and engage people across generations.
Last Tuesday, for example, the institute hosted a free panel with the millennial civic leaders in the commonwealth on the topic of public service.
Dellea said he'll be by the institute twice this month. First, he'll attend its annual dinner gala Sunday, which will honor former senator and Secretary of State John Kerry with the Edward M. Kennedy Institute Lifetime Achievement Award for Outstanding Public Service. Dellea will return later in the month for recreation, chartering a bus trip with friends from the Berkshires.
State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier told The Eagle that she hopes more buses will follow, especially filled with schoolchildren and college students from the western region of the state.
She said there's a deep benefit in experiential learning and letting young people be a senator for the day on the institute's replica Senate floor.
"It allows people to do that kind of critical thinking and problem-solving and dig in deep on a particular issue. It also allows them to see themselves in public service, and that is a key ingredient when you're working with young people," she said.
Karam said he hopes all that and more can be accomplished, as the institute moves past the startup phase and into its third year of operations.
"Expanding awareness and building diverse audiences is a priority for any cultural institution, and the institute has spent the past two years laying the groundwork doing that," he said. "There are endless possibilities for us as we mature, and we are so pleased to have someone of Mary [Grant's] caliber help lead the way."
Upon hearing of Grant's appointment to the role, U.S. Sen. Warren, who spoke at the institute's dedication ceremony, endorsed Grant's leadership.
Said Warren, "The Edward M. Kennedy Institute's mission to educate Americans about participating in our democracy is more important today than ever before. Dr. Grant's lifelong dedication to education in Massachusetts and across the country will make her an excellent steward of that mission."