Smith is also keen on forging new partnerships with other institutions, near and far; he's already had some preliminary discussions with London's Royal Academy of Arts, another museum attached to an art school.
More partnerships mean more opportunities for traveling shows — and the prestige that attaches. But they can also mean relatively low-cost exchanges. And conserving cash is a significant concern for Smith.
Indeed, the RISD Museum, whatever its ambitions, is a small place; it has an annual budget of $7 million and a relatively modest endowment that stood at $25.8 million last year.
Bill Tsiaris, a doctor who chairs the museum's board of governors and headed the search that landed Smith, says funding will place the most significant constraint on the new director and his staff.
"I think that's going to be the biggest challenge," he says. "How do you marry your ambitions, how do you marry this collection, with the realities of the money we have? That's going to be a real trick."
But if creating cost-conscious exhibits that will grab regional or national attention is a prime challenge, there are local ones too.
In the fall of 2008, the RISD Museum opened its $32 million Chace Center, a fetching mix of glass, aluminum, and brick from celebrated Spanish architect José Rafael Moneo that quickly became its public face.
The building — galleries, a hall, a museum shop, and more — won almost universal acclaim. The place glows and says something grand about the artistic ambition of the school and the city that surrounds it.
The museum was in need of a major overture to Providence. Like the broader RISD campus, it was tucked into the crowded, lower reaches of College Hill and too easily missed.
And its association with an elite school and the leafy East Side added a gloss of the inaccessible that has long complicated its job as Rhode Island's leading public museum.
But forging a stronger connection with the city is not just a matter of architectural improvement. It's also about breaking through some basic misconceptions.
The museum's own market research shows some think it exhibits only the work of RISD students. And in his travels, Smith finds people requesting programming — talks by artists and intellectuals, music at the museum — that's already in place.
Last month Hal Cook, a Brown University history professor, and Eric Goetz, chief technology officer of Goetz Boats, teamed up to discuss Dutch painter Salomon van Ruysdael's The Ferry Boat as part of a series called "Double Take" that brings together two specialists from different fields to interpret art.
And as the Phoenix hit the streets on Thursday, musicians Becky Chace and Brian Minisce were scheduled to play in the museum's Grand Gallery as part of its "Music Thursdays" program.
Smith, then, has commissioned a rebranding to better tell the story of what's on offer at the museum. And the tale, he hopes, will help to build on an annual attendance of about 100,000 that he considers inadequate.
Cultivating interest from year-round Rhode Islanders is a big part of that effort. But the museum also has to engage vacationers headed to Block Island or Cape Cod. RISD, Smith suggests, should be a part of the art tourism circuit that the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) in North Adams and the Clark in Williamstown have helped to develop in the region.