RISD redefined

By GREG COOK  |  September 25, 2008

The auditorium’s location allows the museum to offer public programs without having to open the entire museum. With films, talks, music, and dance already scheduled, look for the auditorium to be a prominent new source of energy and public engagement at the institution.

The second floor holds the 2659-square-feet student gallery. It’s designed with a raw loft-warehouse feel to imitate the spaces students will show in as they leave RISD. Though operated independently from the museum, the gallery gives art made at RISD prominence and is a vote of confidence in its students. These are common sense moves considering the prominence numerous RISD students attain not long after graduation.

The third floor offers the museum’s new 4132-square-foot special exhibition gallery (showing “Chihuly at RISD”) and a 2145-square-foot atrium gallery. The special exhibition gallery is nearly twice as large as the museum’s next largest gallery, the 2400-square-foot Main Gallery of European paintings in Radeke. But it’s hard to tell right now because the Chihuly layout is sparse, making the room feel smaller than its mathematical dimensions.

Alswang says the new gallery offers “just a huge amount of flexibility. It’s a huge neutral rectangle. It’s what every curator dreams of when they’re doing a big show.”

It will allow the museum, she says, to present works and exhibits of a scale and ambition that it could never before — including upcoming shows of Bauhaus architect and furniture designer Marcel Breuer, archaeological materials from Jerusalem between 1 and 1000 A.D., and large contemporary paintings. Such changing shows attract visitors by offering new stuff to see. “You need the special exhibitions, because it’s a way of delineating new research and scholarship,” Alswang says, “but it also brings to you people who might not come.”

The heart of the collection
The RISD Museum’s collection numbers 84,000 works, ranging from pieces from ancient Egypt and Greece to contemporary ones. It’s said to be the third largest collection in New England after Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (450,000 objects) and Vermont’s Shelburne Museum (150,000). Compare that to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (100,000), the Baltimore Museum of Art (90,000), Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum (45,000) and the Portland Museum of Art in Maine (35,000).

The RISD Museum is fundamentally a teaching institution, so its collection’s heart is 26,000 works on paper, offering examples of a broad range of artists and working methods.

These works are now housed in Minskoff Center for Prints, Drawings and Photographs on Chace’s fourth floor. Here are classrooms, curatorial offices, and a storage vault that Alswang says make the collections “infinitely more usable” for students, scholars, and staff. Curators have moved here from cramped offices (which were originally storage rooms) in Radeke, freeing those spaces to reopen this past summer as galleries for drawings, photos and 20th-century art.

Besides the auditorium, the fourth floor offers Moneo’s finest designs. The rooms are flexible, with build in panels for displaying work and rolling work tables. These are also some of the few spaces in Chace with large windows. They bring in natural light and offer dramatic views of Providence. The upper parts of the rooms are painted gray, which softens the light and gives the rooms a cozy, Zen calm.

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