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Obituaries

Nancy M. Brennan, a nationally prominent museum curator who was the former executive director of Baltimore City Life Museums, dies

Nancy M. Brennan, a nationally prominent museum curator who was the former executive director of Baltimore’s City Life Museums and earlier had held a post at what is now the Maryland Center for History and Culture, died from cancer Sept. 3 at the University of Maryland Baltimore Washington Medical Center. The Cross Keys resident was 73.

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“Nancy was an incredible connector of people and in building relationships and bringing disparate parts of the community together. She knew how to build relationships with donors. She was graceful and encouraged trust,” said longtime friend and nonprofit consultant Nancy S. Hardaway.

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“She always did what was morally right and not what was in the best interest of her career. She did what was best for the institution and community, and every institution she went to, she pushed to make them bigger and made an impact on the community more than they ever thought.”

Nancy Mary Brennan, daughter of Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan Jr., and Marjorie Leonard Brennan, a homemaker, was born in East Orange, New Jersey, the youngest of three, and raised in Rumson, New Jersey.

She was 7 years old when her father, a member of the New Jersey Supreme Court, was nominated in 1956 to the Supreme Court of the United States by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and moved to Washington with her family.

Her interest in a museum career began when Ms. Brennan was a student at the Holton-Arms School in Bethesda.

“When I was in high school in Washington, I was selected by the Smithsonian Institution for two summers to serve as a guide in the museums. It was so much fun. I loved it,” she told The Sun in a 1986 interview. “But I never considered it as a profession. I couldn’t believe you could make a living having so much fun. You had to do something serious to improve society. I planned to become a lawyer.”

Ms. Brennan earned her bachelor’s degree in 1971 from the University of Pennsylvania, and a master’s degree in 1974 in museum education from George Washington University.

“I got my undergraduate degree at the University of Pennsylvania studying political science and business, expecting to go on to law school. But then I got married and had a baby, and I accompanied my husband, a newspaperman, to California,” she explained in The Sun interview.

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Photo taken July 18, 1995. Nancy Brennan (left), then executive director of Baltimore City Life Museums, was the main force for this unique operation to put new cast iron in front on the Morton K. Blaustein City Life Exhibition Center.

“One day, I woke up and found myself divorced with a 3-year-old daughter to support. Remembering my experience as a Smithsonian guide, when I heard about a brand new graduate program at George Washington University in museum education, I thought that might be the answer. I had no money, but there were two scholarships available. I applied for one and got it.”

After obtaining her master’s from GW, she began her professional career at the St. Petersburg Museum of History in Florida, which mainly housed Florida relics, including a two-headed, six-legged, two-tailed calf. When museum trustees insisted that Ms. Brennan design a program around the animal oddity, she realized this museum was not for her.

“I said it had to be the calf or me. They chose the calf,” she told The Sun.

Her next job was with Historic Annapolis where she helped plan events for the nation’s 1976 Bicentennial, and where she came to the realization that she was interested in planning rather than preservation.

“Aware of the changes taking place in society, she saw the need for new kinds of collections and new ways of presenting artifacts that would be more educational, more direct and more intimate,” observed The Sun.

She left Annapolis and moved to Boston where she established a museum consulting firm, which in 1980 brought her to what was then the Maryland Historical Society, now the Maryland Center for History and Culture, where she developed a master plan as curator of the museum’s Radcliffe Maritime Museum, which reorganized and highlighted its holdings.

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In 1982, she became director of the USS Constellation Museum. There she developed an educational program, Living Legends, that illuminated the life and history of the USS Constellation, a sloop-of-war that was built between 1853 and 1855.

In 1983, Ms. Brennan was named the first executive director of the newly created Baltimore City Life Museums, whose portfolio eventually grew to include the Peale Museum, Carroll Mansion, Shot Tower, Edgar Allan Poe House, H.L. Mencken House and the original Pride of Baltimore, and where she led a successful $11 million capital and endowment campaign.

“Overseeing all this hubbub from her office in the fourth floor of the Carroll house is a pleasant, cool-mannered woman with blue eyes and a pink complexion,” The Sun reported in 1986. “Standing, Ms. Brennan seems a bit like a monument herself — like the Washington Monument — slim and bolt upright, her moderate height accentuated by her high-heeled beige shoes and by the bun on top of her head into which her brown hair has been casually swept and fastened.”

Ms. Brennan left Baltimore in 1995 when she was named executive director of the Bermuda Underwater Exploration Institute in Hamilton, Bermuda, a position she held for two years. She was later named executive director in 1998 of Plimoth Plantation Inc., in Plymouth, Massachusetts, which is a major living history museum whose focus is researching and interpreting 17th century colonial Massachusetts history.

She returned to Washington in 2004 as fundraising consultant and interim director of development for Common Cause. From 2005 to 2012, she was executive director of the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway in Boston, which was created after the completion of what was called the Big Dig through downtown Boston.

Ms. Brennan moved to San Francisco in 2013 as chief philanthropy officer for the Asian Art Museum. She led a departmentwide reorganization, developed a Silicon Valley strategy for donor development,opened a satellite office and initiated the museum’s first full-time planned giving office, as well as a significant increase in fundraising dollars.

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Photo taken Nov. 13, 2018. Nancy Brennan, left, nonprofit development & management consultant; Joe Jones, Center for Urban Families president/CEO; and Sherrilyn Ifill, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund president/director-counsel/event honoree, at the Center for Urban Families' "2018 Urban Visionary Awards," at the American Visionary Art Museum.

“She was quite an expert on Asian art, and when I visited the Asian Art Museum where she had raised millions of dollars, she gave me a tour and it was like being given a tour by a curator,” Ms. Hardaway said.

She returned to Baltimore in 2016 where she worked in fund development and management of nonprofit organizations with major clients, including the Baltimore School for the Arts and Arts for Learning Maryland, which was formerly called Young Audiences of Maryland.

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Brigid Zuknick, who is the chief advancement officer for the Baltimore School for the Arts Foundation, worked closely with Ms. Brennan.

“Nancy Brennan was one of the guiding lights of my life and it was a wonderful opportunity for us to work with her,” Ms. Zuknick said. “We called her ‘Our Yoda’ because she had this way about her and helped guide us to do the right things.”

“Three weeks before she died, she gave a Zoom philanthropy power point with the International Neuropalliative Care Society with which I am associated,” Ms. Hardaway said. “Nancy told me, ‘I want to make a difference as long as I can.’”

In addition to being a longtime board member of the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University Law School, Ms. Brennan had served on the board of the Choral Arts Society, Center for Urban Families, Hospice Care and Doula Volunteer, Gilchrist Services, and Team of Ten member of Strong Schools Maryland. She also had been a teaching fellow in museum education at George Washington University and a leadership member of Threshold Support Circle Maryland, an after-death care collaborative.

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Throughout her career, Ms. Brennan was recognized for her work. She was named “Bostonian of the Year, one of ten, in 2012 by the Boston Globe. The American Society of Public Administration presented her their John W. Grason Jr. Award for Excellence in Public Service Management.

A memorial service was held Oct. 1 at St. Vincent de Paul Roman Catholic Church in Baltimore.

She is survived by her daughter, Connie Phelps of Pikesville; and two grandchildren. Marriages to Timothy Phelps and Ted Widman ended in divorce.


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