Our Mission and History
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’s collection is composed of seven departments and includes about 100,000 objects of art and design.
The Ancient Art collection includes bronze figural sculpture and vessels, an exceptional collection of Greek coins, stone sculpture, Greek vases, paintings, and mosaics, as well as Roman jewelry and glass. Highlights include an Etruscan bronze situla (pail), a fifth-century B.C. Greek female head in marble, and a rare Hellenistic bronze Aphrodite. Among the Greek vases are works by some of the major Attic painters, including Nikosthenes and the Providence, Brygos, Pan, Lewis, and Reed Painters. The Egyptian collection includes a Ptolemaic period coffin and mummy of the priest Nesmin; a rare New Kingdom ceramic paint box; a relief fragment from the Temple at Karnak, and a collection of faience.
The Asian Art collection spans a period of almost 5,000 years and covering the geographic areas of East Asia, South and Southeast Asia, and the Islamic world. The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller collection of Japanese bird-and-flower prints (Kacho-ga), spans the development of this category of material during the Edo period (1603-1868). The Asian sculpture collection ranges from Indian Buddhist and Hindu materials to Chinese and Japanese including the later 12th-century wooden Dainichi Nyorai Buddha, the largest (about nine feet tall) seated Japanese figural sculpture in the United States. The collection of three-dimensional objects includes ceramics; carved jades and hardstones; ivory, wood, stone, and metal sculpture; and bronze, brass, and other metalwork. The Islamic and Indian collections together include works of art in all media that celebrate the artistic heritage of the Arab, Indian, Persian, and Turkish cultures.
Created in 2000, the Contemporary Art collection includes painting, sculpture, video, mixed media, and interdisciplinary work, dating from 1960 to the present. Represented in the collection are significant paintings by Richard Anuskiewicz, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Mangold, Agnes Martin, Sam Francis, Cy Twombly, Wayne Thiebaud, Larry Rivers, and Andy Warhol, among others. The collection also includes important sculptural work by Richard Artschwager, Louise Bourgeois, Louise Nevelson, Lucas Samaras, and Robert Wilson. The Museum’s video collection features experimental works by such pioneers in the field as Vito Acconci, Lynda Benglis, Bruce Nauman, Martha Rosler, Richard Serra, and William Wegman.
Costume and Textiles
The RISD Museum has one of the finest collections of historical textiles and items of dress in this country, with a range that spans the centuries from at least 1500 BCE to the present and that includes representative cloth and clothing from as many geographic areas as possible. Starting with items such a pair of Native American moccasins and a Hawaiian bark cloth acquired in the Museum’s early history, the collection has grown to include more than 26,000 objects today. Our earliest piece is an ancient Egyptian tomb fragment, and a major focus of our present collecting agenda is the acquisition of contemporary fashion and textiles from all over the world. The richness of the Costume and Textiles collections extends from examples of Elizabethan needlework, Italian Renaissance textiles, French printed toile de Jouey, Navajo chief’s blankets, and fashions from the most celebrated European and American designers of the 19th and 20th centuries to a world-renowned group of Japanese Noh theater robes and Buddhist priest robes donated by Lucy Truman Aldrich, the greatest single donor to the Museum’s textile collection.
Works not on view can be accessed by appointment during open for study hours.
Decorative Arts and Design
The Decorative Arts and Design department’s collections encompass European and American furniture, silver, metalwork, wallpaper, ceramics, glass, and plastics from the medieval period to the present. The Charles L. Pendleton Collection includes furniture made by 18th-century Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and the Townsend-Goddard circle of Newport cabinetmakers. The Gorham Manufacturing Company collection of silver pieces and design drawings from the mid-19th through the mid-20th century is the cornerstone of the American silver collection. Other highlights include Chinese export porcelain; French Empire furniture; European porcelain figures; 18th- and early 19th-century French wallpaper; 20th-century and contemporary design.
Painting and Sculpture
The Painting and Sculpture collection includes works of European and American art from the 12th through the mid-20th century. Highlights include Renaissance and Baroque works by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Lippo Memmi, Tilman Riemenschneider, Hendrick Goltzius, and Salomon van Ruysdael; 17th- and 18th-century paintings by Nicolas Poussin, Angelica Kauffmann, and Joshua Reynolds; 18th- and 19th-century American paintings by John Singleton Copley, Gilbert Stuart, Thomas Cole, Winslow Homer, William Merritt Chase, Martin Johnson Heade, Mary Cassatt, and John Singer Sargent; 19th and 20th century European paintings and sculpture by Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Paul Cézanne, Auguste Rodin, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Henri Matisse, Fernand Léger, and Oskar Kokoschka; 20th century American works by George Wesley Bellows, Robert Henri, Charles Sheeler, Maxfield Parrish, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Nancy Elizabeth Prophet; and a Latin American collection including paintings by Joaquín Torres-Garcia, Wifredo Lam, and Roberto Matta Echuarren.
Prints, Drawings, and Photographs
The Prints, Drawings, & Photographs collection comprises more than 25,000 works including prints, drawings, and photographs, and dating from the 15th century to the present. The holdings include a large group of Old Master engravings and etchings, and particular strengths in prints and drawings of 18th-century Italy, 19th-century France, and 19th- and 20th-century America. The department also holds one of the largest collections of late 18th- and early 19th-century British watercolors in the United States. Both the Nancy Sayles Day Collection of Modern Latin American Art and the Richard Brown Baker collection of contemporary British art have depth in works on paper. Contemporary works on paper in all media are the fastest growing segment of the collection.
Works not on view can be accessed by appointment in the Minskoff Center for Prints, Drawings, and Photographs.
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 downtown-facing entrance on Main Street.