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RISD Museum Director John Smith: 13 To Watch in RI in 2013

Tuesday, January 01, 2013


The first full year into his tenure at the helm of the renowned RISD Museum of Art is revealing the dynamic style of the deceptively buttoned down director, John W. Smith.

Smith took over in the summer of 2011 at a genuine tipping point for the 135-year-old museum that has always been respected for certain collections, and has indeed added some modern street cred with its latest expansion to more accessible South Main Street. But in Smith's estimation, the museum was underperforming in attendance, and with an endowment that could be larger, the new director is on a mission. Smith aims to make the RISD Museum of Art as much a destination other similarly sized museums in the region, and a truly forward-thinking place that beckons a diversity of patron.

Moving forward

Insiders say that Smith, who has taken thoughtful time to get the lay of the land and established good rapport with the college, with donors, and with staff, will likely open up his personal vision increasingly in 2013.

Perhaps the signs are already here. Since a financially stressful 2009, the museum has closed during the month of August, but in 2012, Smith reversed that policy and the museum stayed open throughout the dog days of summer.

On the programming side, Smith took a creative interest in the museum's major spring 2013 exhibition: "Artist, Rebel, Dandy: Men of Fashion," looking to build on the blockbuster success of last year's Cocktail Culture with an even bigger splash of bringing the unexpected into the galleries. In this case, clothing and fashion sported by creative men--dandies--from literature, art, and theater.

Bold colors, bold gestures

It's a bold statement with attendant ironies that is sure to resonate on wavelengths outside of Rhode Island--in other words, a spotlight grabber. "The exhibition and its companion book offer a sumptuous view of the power of clothing and fine craftsmanship," Smith said. "It comes at a time of renewed appreciation for the nuances and attention to detail of traditional tailoring but also innovation and boldness in menswear design. The dandy, a historical figure, is central to the development."
In addition to the bold stroke, Smith also has a forward-looking eye, identifying the museum's digital life as nearly as vital as its presence on South Main Street. To wit: hundreds of the museum's works have been put online, and the museum's website was redesigned to be more fashion-forward and powerful. "Six, nine months from now, a year from now," Smith told the Providence Phoenix in May of 2012, "what we're doing online is just going to be a thousandfold increase over what we're doing now."

Creative, bold, forward-thinking. It is not your mother's RISD Museum. All eyes are on John Smith and what's to come.


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