Smith grew the publications program, too, and gave it a popular tilt: offering up a compendium of artists' love letters and a collection of portrait photographs of artists in their studios.
The director, who raised nearly $15 million during his tenure, also invested heavily in upgrading the Archives' website — now a handsome collection of blogs, oral histories, and exhibition images — and digitizing some 1.5 million objects in the permanent collection.
The move was in keeping with a much broader experiment with the digital museum: halting, unruly, and intriguing. Last year, the Museum of Modern Art's "Talk to Me" exhibition on the communicative capacity of design — the premise: everything from spoon, to city, to social network talks to us — took on a second life at its strange, colorful, hyperconnected website.
The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts is currently offering "Clark Remix," a physical gallery-cum-digital space that allows web site users to curate their own shows.
Smith says the art museum website has become "almost this separate institution that you're running online" — a hybrid of digital programming and social networking designed to keep pace with a rapidly evolving conception of what, exactly, constitutes the art-going community.
RISD, Smith says, has lagged behind in this area. And he is planning a major upgrade. He will sign a contract for a website redesign shortly. And the museum has already done much of the back-end work to put hundreds of works online, starting this summer.
"Six, nine months from now, a year from now," he says, "what we're doing online is just going to be a thousandfold increase over what we're doing now."
THE SHOW IS THE THING
The web, though, is a crowded place. And the new site will only stand out as much as the exhibits at the museum.
The show, at least for now, is still the thing.
The RISD Museum, no doubt, has managed to generate some buzz in the recent past. Last year's "Cocktail Culture" show, a heady brew of fashion and design, made the New York Times' T Magazine and NPR's Weekend Edition.
Smith is leery of measuring success by national press coverage; a museum that aims for a Times review of every show is bound to be disappointed. But if cultural impact is the currency of the modern art museum, RISD has accumulated less than it might.
How, then, to grow a bit richer? Smith says the museum's ties to an art school give it a special license to take risks — a license, he suggests, that has not been fully exploited.
The director is coy about what, precisely, he has in mind. And we won't see the full measure of his influence for some time — exhibits, after all, are planned a couple of years in advance.
But there are some hints of what is to come. Smith speaks, for instance, of venturing beyond art as history and placing a new emphasis on the materials and process of artmaking. He's also made some early use of his art world connections.
With his curators plotting a 2013 exhibit called "Artist, Rebel, Dandy: Men of Fashion," he has asked mustachioed indie filmmaker John Waters and Patti Smith to dip into their closets (Patti, he explains, is a sort of "female dandy").