The Art Of Curation

RISD Museum Director John Smith on bringing fine art into the community


Recognized in museum circles around the world, the RISD Museum is a true treasure. Running it is a career-defining position that Director John Smith, a quick study, has embraced with high energy and enthusiasm, constantly operating on all cylinders in almost every aspect of the museum. He has subtly changed the culture and breathed new excitement into his entire staff.

A brief story offers insight into the new director. We are seated at a magnificent birthday dinner celebration in the Grand Gallery of the RISD Museum with John Smith when a prominent East Sider comes up behind him and says, “John, we are seated over there and we had a question about the portrait right above our table.” She then asks an elaborate, multi-faceted question. Smith doesn’t even blink, looks up, pauses and says, “I’ll get back to you.” Our table finds his response refreshing as we muse about previous museum directors who would have left the table and offered a lengthy dissertation on the portrait disrupting everyone’s dinner.

Later in the evening I see Smith surveying the room with his hands clasped, and I say, “This must be killing you. All of these potential major donors in one room and you can’t pick their pockets!” He laughs, and says that he hopes that they see the museum in a great light “so we can talk later!”

John Smith arrived in Providence following an internal ‘train wreck’ that flowed into the outside community between the previous director, Hope Alswang, and RISD President John Maeda, which eventually ended in restructuring the museum so that it reports to its own board. “The past is history, I don’t look back and I have a wonderful working relationship with both my board and President Maeda,” tactfully explains Smith. (Alswang is now Director and CEO of the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Florida.)

Smith arrived in Providence less than a year and a half ago and he hit the ground like Forrest Gump on his famous run. He hasn’t stopped and has barely slowed down and his imprint is both visibly and invisibly already being shown. A new identity for the RISD Museum is being rolled out with a distinctive, slightly edgy look that meshes tradition with modern. “I want to do things in art and design that speaks to people,” he explains, “and have a Museum that is available and accessible to the community.”

The RISD Museum is part of the cultural fabric of the city, and some would argue is the crown jewel. Smith reopened the Museum in August, following several years when it was dark for budget reasons and targeted the tourist market along with the “pass-through” visitors headed north or to the Cape and Islands. The response was overwhelming and visitors from all 50 states and 50 foreign countries were tracked.

The RISD Museum is daunting. The permanent collection exceeds 86,000 pieces and ranges from an Egyptian Mummy to a 12th Century wooden Buddha to extensive collections in both art and fashion. The digital age that we are in is causing great upheaval and change in the traditional museum landscape and John Smith has poised the Museum into position for this new world.

The opportunity to lead a well-established art museum in the digital age is a complicated challenge and Smith is looking for a blend that will take this Museum into the new age. “New shows are an integral part of any museum. They generate big attendance bumps, but are taxing on staff and other parts of the Museum. While the web can’t replace the physical experience of our museum and exhibits, we can reach a much larger audience,” Smith notes. The RISD Museum sees around 100,000 visitors annually.

“There are financial constraints with major exhibitions, but we are able to create our own blockbuster shows,” Smith explains. “And, the talent pool of RISD’s alumni, faculty and students is incredibly diverse.”

“The RISD Museum has the third largest collection of all of the college museums, behind Harvard and Yale. It is a truly remarkable collection and I want to keep underscoring the idea that it is very available and accessible to everyone,” adds Smith.

The anxiously awaited new and expanded website will be unveiled later this month and promises to be very exciting with a new look, richer content, and complete collections. “Not only will it showcase the museum in a dramatically different light, I believe that it will have a noticeable effect on attendance as well,” explains Smith.

The children’s programs and the Free Days will also be expanded as part of Smith’s goal to make the museum more inviting. “Everybody knows that we’re here, but we want everybody to come visit,” he adds. Dig the Museum sells out and Tours for Tots continues to be hot. A huge hit was Design the Night, a series of four evening programs complete with Food trucks drew over 1,000 people to connect with art, artists, art making and partying. Add in the 15-16,000 students who are led around the museum by a well-trained cadre of loyal docents and it’s a ‘happening place.’

There is still time to visit Mummy but Buddha is on a leave of absence until spring 2014 as the sixth floor galleries undergo a major renovation. The Buddha is made of wood so it’s not a facelift, but more like a visit to Geppetto. Parts of the collections will relocate to the first floor for the duration of the long overdue upgrade.

Smith grew up in a small town in Illinois and majored in English and unsure of a career he ended up at the Art Institute of Chicago as an archivist. He headed to London for a year as the visiting archivist at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden before becoming the Chief Archivist. He then moved to Pittsburgh as the Director of the Archives Research Center at the Andy Warhol Museum, became the Assistant Director before serving as the Interim Director. Smith then moved to Washington, D.C. as the Director of the Smithsonian Institutions Archives of American Art where he oversaw a landmark acquisition, fundraised and led the major project to digitize the Archives 1,500,000 collection and a redesign of the website.

He and his partner live on the East Side with their Brittany Spaniel.


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