Any effort to draw the summer crowd was hamstrung by a decision, made in the midst of the financial downturn in 2009, to close the museum for the month of August. Smith has reversed that decision, effective this summer, and the boon will be not just practical, but symbolic.

The closure, after all, contributed to a feeling of a museum in trouble — a feeling exacerbated by the 2009 departure of Smith's predecessor, Hope Alswang, after an ugly clash with RISD president John Maeda.

That incident, which shook the campus and Providence society alike, has begun to recede from memory, now. A new governance structure has the director reporting to the chairman of the museum's board of governors, rather than the college president.

Those around the museum are feeling optimistic about the place again. And with Smith at the helm, the real challenge is coming into focus: how to make the RISD Museum sparkle again for a city, a region, a nation that can't quite see it.

David Scharfenberg can be reached at

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