The Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the US Senate’s board has picked a longtime college administrator to be its new president as the 2½-year-old museum seeks to boost attendance and find more ways to bring in revenue.
The institute said it has selected Mary Grant, currently the chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Asheville, as its new leader. She will succeed Jean MacCormack, the retired chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, who has run the institute since November 2014.
Grant previously ran the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams for 12 years before taking over at UNC-Asheville in January 2015. She leaves North Carolina for a much smaller job, as the Kennedy Institute has a $10.5 million annual budget and staff of nearly 40.
But for Grant, who was born in Dorchester and grew up in Weymouth, the job was an opportunity to come home and work on a singular cause: teaching the importance and mechanics of US government by using the Senate and Kennedy’s career as examples.
“The need for this in our country right now just spoke to me,” Grant said. “The chance to take what I’ve learned running complex institutions and bringing that to bear here is exciting.”
Grant acknowledged the museum, which opened its doors to much fanfare in early 2015, has an attendance problem. Organizers had originally projected it would draw 150,000 visitors annually, but so far it has done less than half that amount. Officials with the institute say the 150,000 figure is a long-term goal and that it would take several years for attendance to ramp up.
“That’s an area where we have to work on, for sure,” Grant said.
Grant said she hopes to raise the profile of the institute — which can feel like it’s in the shadow of the much better known John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum next door — and to build a passionate following.
Jim Karam, chairman of the institute’s board, said the organization hired a headhunting firm last year to find someone who could take over for MacCormack. Grant stood out, he said, because of her leadership experience and her ability to grow the organizations where she has worked and improve their public image.
The board’s goal is for the organization’s annual budget to be funded by an even split of three sources: fund-raising, an endowment of approximately $50 million, and operating revenue. So far operating revenue has fallen short, hitting just $748,000 in 2016. Revenues are projected to increase to $1.2 million this year, but Karam said he’s sure Grant can improve that.
“What I think Dr. Grant clearly understands is to keep our eye on the ball,” Karam said. “She’s a strategic thinker.”
Kennedy’s family remains heavily involved in the oversight of the museum. Victoria Reggie Kennedy, Kennedy’s wife, is president of the board, and his son, Patrick Kennedy, the former congressman, is also on the board.
Patrick Kennedy said he would like to see the institute help produce a civics curriculum that can be used in schools throughout the country. He also hopes it can become a training center of sorts for incoming Capitol Hill staffers — and potentially new US senators. The need for good education about the way government works, Kennedy said, has never been more pressing.
“Mary clearly has a really incredible record of building institutions,” he said. “That’s what we need now. We’ve laid the foundation. Now we need to build the house.”
To others, simply making the institute easier to get to would help. The main roadway along Columbia Point has been a major construction zone the past few years because of several UMass Boston projects.
Marty Blatt, director of Northeastern University’s public history program, said the institute’s crown jewel is its replication of the Senate floor and the interactive activities that take place there. The museum also features a replica of the late senator’s office. But Blatt said the institute probably relies too heavily on digital exhibits and could probably benefit from more traditional three-dimensional exhibits.
“I admire the commitment to digital and electronic history,” Blatt said. “I think it’s possible that it’s a little unbalanced, that there might be [room for] more traditional museum experiences by way of exhibits.”
To former interim US senator Paul Kirk, the museum also needs to overcome another big barrier: a lack of knowledge or interest in the way the country’s democracy is supposed to work.
“The biggest challenge facing the institute,” said Kirk, a friend of the Kennedy family who served in the Senate after Ted Kennedy’s death, “is the biggest challenge facing our country today.”Jon Chesto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.