RISD redefined

By GREG COOK  |  September 25, 2008

At the top floor are rooms for RISD foundation classes and crits — which were closed during my visits. Perhaps here’s the place to note that Chace was LEED-certified by the US Green Building Council for its careful disposal of construction waste, avoiding certain chemicals in the wall paint, and incorporating water-conservation devices in the bathrooms and energy-efficient climate-control systems (which will be heavily used to preserve the art). For an institution aiming to lead the creative economy, these green efforts seem like the bare minimum.

It’s too early to tell how well the building functions, and how well it will serve staff and students and visitors. In fact, all the pieces aren’t yet in place.

The RISD Museum had been scheduled to close for two-and-a-half years of construction when Alswang became director in September 2005. Her first big move — a great one — was to keep it open while the work was done.

It meant construction would take longer, and shifting things from gallery to gallery as renovations moved through the building. Renovations continue on Radeke’s fifth and sixth floors, with works from the permanent collection scheduled to be reinstalled there by 2011. But the decision kept a vital part of the school’s, Providence’s, and Rhode Island’s cultural life active.

Exhibits like last winter’s “Styrofoam,” which was organized by contemporary curator Judith Tannenbaum, and “Evolution/Revolution,” organized by costumes and textiles curator Joanne Dolan Ingersoll, demonstrate the curators’ ability to mount sharp exhibits that also spot and map current art trends. I expect the new galleries will inspire even grander, more ambitious projects.

When Alswang joined RISD, Mandle praised her as a “community activist” — which seems to have been code for saying she was good at engaging the community and increasing attendance (as she had at her last job, at the Shelburne Museum).

Annual attendance over the past five years has fluctuated between 90,441 for the last fiscal year (when many galleries were closed for construction) and 106,605 for fiscal 2006 (when “Wunderground,” surveying Providence’s influential poster underground, was on view). A measure of the success of the museum’s renovation and Chace addition will be whether audience numbers grow.

This is a bottom-line concern for a museum. But Alswang notes that it’s also a sign of the vitality it adds to the life of all of us in the community. “We are not nearly as well-known as we should be,” she tells me. “We are an enormous museum in a small building. Now we are starting to have the kind of space that we need so our exhibitions reflect the kind of institution we are.”  

You can read Greg Cook’s blog at gregcookland.com/journal.

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