Dear Museum Friends,
As the world bears witness to the recent tragedies of George Floyd’s death, the deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and the countless numbers of Black people before them, it’s difficult to feel like I have anything new to say on a subject that I should meet with respectful listening, but as the director of this institution it is my job to lead both in words and in deeds.
The RISD Museum, like many museums, plays a role in the unjust and systemic racism and oppression we continue to see in our country in acts of violence and a disregard for human life and we have a moral and mission-driven obligation to help repair that system.
Historically, museums originated as repositories for the spoils of colonization. It is time to deliberately, consistently, and compassionately work to rectify these wrongs. Our mission statement holds us accountable to the belief that art, artists and the institutions that support them play pivotal roles in promoting broad civic engagement and creating more open societies.
Despite significant strides over the past few years in the art we collect, the exhibitions and programs we produce, and the communities we serve, we can and must do better.
Going forward, we will bring anti-racist practice to our hiring, work processes, and collaborations with community partners to actively disrupt racism. And, as a leader, I join my colleagues across Providence and the museum field in doing the same—to acknowledge our flaws, our past complicity, and our biases—and to hold each other accountable.
We do not have all the answers, but the staff and I are committed to this necessary and vulnerable process. To not say or do anything is to be complicit in the unending cycles of violence, racism, and injustice.
John W. Smith
RISD Museum from Home:
Last summer, I celebrated my 60th birthday by deciding to pursue my long-held dream of learning to play acoustic guitar. Adopting new skills at any age can be a challenge, but with diligent practice and commitment, I continue to improve. And while I’m hardly ready for prime time, I’m finally able to produce something that sounds like music.
As the staff and I begin developing plans for the eventual re-opening of the museum, I’ve been reflecting on the necessity for all of us to learn new skills and new ways of navigating through the world. Although I’m not certain when we can re-open, I am certain that there will be a new set of protocols in place that ensure the safety of our visitors and our staff. They will undoubtedly feel strange and unnatural at first, but I hope that, with practice, a visit to the RISD Museum under new guidelines will feel as welcoming and as rewarding as it did in the pre-pandemic age.
Until we’re able to welcome you back to the museum, I am proud to share a few examples of dedicated work our staff is doing, each a demonstration of deep commitment and concern for the communities we serve:
- Curators and educators are leading virtual classes for RISD students on studio drawing, machine knitting techniques, and art and religion on the Silk Road.
- Museum educators are responding to requests, sharing digital resources, and creating virtual art making experiences, serving as a resource between teachers and students. Bi-lingual video drawing prompts like Dream Drawing encourage families to create art together at home.
- The Museum’s Art & Design lab for teens has always been a safe space to explore creative expression. Zoom hangouts bring young people together virtually with artists and museum educators.
- Our curators, registrars, and conservators continue to care for the collection from home and by regularly assessing conditions at the museum. After the most recent quarterly Fine Arts Committee meeting, held online on March 18, loan requests need to be processed and more than 150 objects need to be accessioned into our collection. Our staff continue to support the installation of the Gorham exhibition, which had opened at the Cincinnati Art Museum in March.
- The museum’s Nancy Prophet Fellow Tayana Fincher will host an online Listening Party to discuss Tell Them, I Am, a podcast focused on telling the stories of individual Muslims living in America.
Museums were founded as places to bring people together and I hope that our online initiatives continue to strengthen the relationship that the RISD Museum has always had with our community. Over the coming weeks, as our plans for reopening become clearer, I look forward to sharing that news with you. In the meantime, thank you for your support and encouragement of all that we are trying to do.
John W. Smith
As we find ourselves in week four of the Museum closure, thank you to all of our friends and supporters who have reached out to us with words of encouragement and gratitude. Your thoughtfulness is a wonderful reminder of what the RISD Museum means to our communities and we are all eager to, once again, welcome you to the museum as soon as possible.
In the meantime, I want to assure you that in addition to ensuring the safety of the collection, museum staff are finding innovative ways to share it digitally under these new circumstances. We are using museum resources to fulfill both the immediate educational needs of educators and students, and also, hopefully, providing comfort, amusement and relaxation to others. Our investment in digital resources over the past few years is paying off in ways we couldn't previously have imagined.
Museum projects and publications are always available for browsing online and our social media accounts are alive with activities anyone can follow. Here are three amazing examples of how our mission is playing a role in addressing the need for educational opportunities:
- Academic programs and curatorial staff are working with area faculty and students to develop plans for virtual classroom connections and provide one-on-one student support.
- Free educational materials are available to K-12 teachers for home and classroom teaching. Museum education staff are overwhelmed with requests to bring the museum to students across the state.
- Open to any teen, virtual Art & Design lab on Fridays offers opportunities to explore personal interest in the arts.
The museum’s mission to share art and design with the public has never been more relevant and active than it is today. Please share these resources widely and I would welcome any ideas you might have for ways we can serve the community now and in the future.
Thank you for your support of the RISD Museum.
John W. Smith
Art museums have always been places where communities gather, even during challenging and difficult times. When we made the unprecedented yet necessary decision to close the RISD Museum on March 13 until further notice, we did it with a heavy heart.
During the closure, our focus is the security and safety of the collection and essential museum staff. These first days have been spent ensuring that museum staff have the tools they need to work remotely and those that must report in are well taken care of. For the duration of the semester, curators and staff will be supporting RISD faculty as classes move online. I am monitoring the ever-evolving national situation and making decisions in consultation with institutional leadership and our peer institutions.
Museum members are a vital part of any museum ecosystem. Membership sustains our work and lets us know that our community is engaged with our work, activities, and our collection. We will be extending membership terms commensurate with the length of the closure for all members, including anyone who joins or renews online during this period.
The RISD Museum community is a diverse mix of individuals, families, students, educators, and community partners who all value the work of artists and designers and the stories they tell. Many of you will be looking for engaging experiences over the coming weeks on-line and in social media. Until we reopen, we will remind the public that the museum serves as a resource for research and personal enrichment with 80% of the collection available online. Our staff are hard at work, invigorated by the challenge to provide new ways to bring the museum to life beyond the walls we normally work within. Using the museum from home link provides resources for faculty and students. Connect through art anywhere offers activities and online learning for parents, teachers, and learners of all ages. In addition, visitors can explore the digital publication that accompanies Raid the Icebox Now, plus back issues of Manual.
We would love to hear from you. Please share any ideas about how we can serve you during this time at firstname.lastname@example.org.
John W. Smith, Director