The RISD Museum acquires, preserves, exhibits, and interprets works of art and design representing diverse cultures from ancient times to the present. Distinguished by its relationship to the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), the Museum educates and inspires artists, designers, students, scholars, and the general public through exhibitions, programs, and publications.
The development of the Rhode Island School of Design and the RISD Museum is tied to Rhode Island’s emergence after the Civil War as the most heavily industrialized state in the Union, and to the growing desire for better design in manufacturing. With the region’s prosperity based on the production of silverware, jewelry, machine tools, steam engines, files, screws, and textiles, leading manufacturers and civic leaders felt the need for industrial-arts education and exposure to examples of fine art.
Even before the war, the Rhode Island Art Association, chartered in 1854, determined “to establish in Providence a permanent Art Museum and Gallery of the Arts and Design.” In the absence of either state funding or private donations, however, the creation of a design school and art museum in Rhode Island did not occur until 1877. Faced with a choice between erecting a drinking fountain in Roger Williams Park or founding a school of design—the latter proposed by Helen Adelia Rowe Metcalf (1830–1895)—the Rhode Island Women’s Centennial Commission in that year voted to establish the Rhode Island School of Design by allocating to it the modest $1,675 remaining from its fund-raising for the Women’s Pavilion at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia.
The Museum is composed of five buildings located on the historic East Side of Providence.
The first public galleries were created in 1893 in the Waterman Building.
Pendleton House, the country’s first museum wing devoted to the display of American decorative arts, was built in 1906 as a replica of the Federal-style residence of Charles L. Pendleton.
The Eliza G. Radeke Building was added in 1926, houses permanent-collection galleries, from Egyptian and Ancient art through Impressionism to 20th-century art and design.
The Daphne Farago Wing, erected in 1993, exhibits contemporary art and provides the Benefit Street entrance to the Museum.
In 2008, the Chace Center opened with 6,000 square feet for special exhibitions and a new entrance on Main Street.