PROVIDENCE, RI, August 7, 2020—After nearly 10 years of leading the RISD Museum, Director John W. Smith is set to retire in spring of 2021. As one of the museum’s longest-serving directors, Smith leaves a legacy of progressive thinking in collecting and exhibition policy. During his tenure, the museum was transformed by building renovations, reconsidering how objects are displayed and interpreted, and strengthened relationships with the many communities that make up RISD. He has devoted his attention to building the museum’s connections to the college and the city of Providence, expanding access through generous free-admission policies on Sundays and special memberships for newly naturalized U.S. citizens, Rhode Island artists, and others, overseeing the design and development of a range of new digital initiatives and expanding the museum’s commitment to artists. Often citing it as “the artists’ museum,” Smith has committed 75 percent of the museum’s annual acquisition budget to prioritizing the purchase and accession of works by underrepresented artists and RISD alumni, and the continued fair payment of all artists and interns who work at the museum.
From the start of his time at RISD in 2011, Smith has been deeply committed to the museum serving all communities through art education and public programming, a call that was met by a talented and enthusiastic staff. This spirit has made the museum a leader in RISD’s Social Equity and Inclusion (SEI) efforts. Since the institution issued its SEI action plan in 2017, the museum has aspired to create an inclusive environment that builds meaningful relationships across all communities. For example, the curatorial and education departments have worked together to uncover and openly discuss objects within the collection with problematic histories, and the museum is currently focused on deaccessioning and repatriating its Beninese Head of a King (Oba) by the end of 2020. The museum is also intentionally building on this pursuit with the new America’s Research Initiative, funded by a generous grant from the Luce Foundation, to research and return culturally sensitive Native American artifacts. This initiative will be overseen by a new Native North American Collections Research Fellow who will begin work at the museum this fall. Smith also created the Nancy Prophet Fellowship, a two-year position for artists and scholars interested in a career in museums and examining the roles museums play in an increasingly diverse society. This opportunity is named in honor of Nancy Prophet, an artist of Narragansett and African heritage and one of RISD’s first graduates of color in 1918.
Smith’s tenure is also marked by raising the museum’s visibility, which resulted in record-breaking fundraising and annual attendance numbers. With Smith’s embrace of all things digital—from a transformed website, a new digital-publication platform, and the expansion of social media—the RISD Museum created award-winning exhibition and web designs that have connected audiences across the globe. This same understanding of the need to more broadly share the museum’s work and extraordinary collections led to the twice-yearly publication Manual, a journal about art and it’s making, first released in Fall of 2013, which has attracted contributions from key figures in the worlds of art and letters.
With a keen interest in art and design spanning multiple eras and styles, Smith worked with the curatorial staff to add over 6,000 objects to the museum’s collection of nearly 100,000 pieces. Notable acquisitions include a major bequest of European decorative arts from the collection of the late Peggy and David Rockefeller and an anonymous gift of nearly 200 works by contemporary American and British artists. Particular attention has been given to acquiring works by BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, women, and RISD graduates.
The museum also went through a physical transformation under Smith’s leadership. A collection of 5 interconnected structures built in different eras starting in 1896, the museum underwent a multi-million dollar floor-by-floor renovation, completed in 2019. Smith took each project as the opportunity to reimagine how the collection is presented and interpreted, focussing on the role of the artist and the act of making, an approach in keeping with the museum’s relationship to an art and design school. Smith also sought to make the museum an inviting gathering space for the campus and local community with the addition of Cafe Pearl, opened in partnership with Bolt Coffee in 2016. A full-service cafe named for the museum’s longest-serving docent, Pearl Nathan, the cafe offers a gracious place for students, visitors and neighbors to refuel, relax and come together.
The chairman of the RISD Museum Board of Governors, J. Scott Burns, Esq., says, “John is one of the most respected figures on the RISD campus, and his intelligence, genuine warmth, quick wit and passionate support for the museum and his staff will be greatly missed. John’s time as director of the museum marks a remarkable period of inspired programming and institutional advancement. No other RISD Museum director has been as successful in promoting the ties of the museum with the academic program at the college. The Board of Governors, staff, volunteers and members wish him well on his next adventure in life.”
Smith came to the RISD Museum in 2011 from his position as the director of the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art, the world’s leading research center devoted to the study of the visual arts in North America. Prior to his work for the Smithsonian, he worked for 11 years at the Andy Warhol Museum, serving as assistant director for collections, exhibitions and research and as interim director for a short time.
John Smith shares, “After a 40-year career in cultural institutions, starting at the Art Institute of Chicago, I am ready to transition into a new place in life. I’ve had the opportunity to help change the museum industry to a more just and community-focused field, and I am grateful for the remarkable opportunities in wonderful organizations, none more so than my time at the RISD Museum. With a great staff and the support of the Board and President Somerson, we’ve been able to make significant strides in many areas over the past several years and I am very proud of all we’ve achieved.”
During her tenure as President of RISD, Rosanne Somerson has been a close partner with John Smith and has applauded the exceptional progress of the RISD Museum. “Museum directors are agents of collection stewardship, but also visionaries of change. John has led many important physical and philosophic advancements at the RISD Museum. He has helped to escalate our institutional SEI plan into actions affecting the collection policy, interpretation and exhibitions. John has not just been a good colleague, but a trusted friend, and he will be missed terribly across campus. When he retires in March he will leave the RISD Museum having helped shape a leading institution in the art and design world, with an enhanced global reputation and a clear commitment to celebrating new voices for art and design.”