RISD names new art museum director

Finally fills position after controversy

By Geoff Edgers
Globe Staff / June 16, 2011

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Nearly two years after an ugly spat that led to its director’s exit, the Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art has a new leader.

John W. Smith, 51, currently the director of the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art, takes over at the RISD museum in September. He succeeds Hope Alswang, who resigned in July 2009 under pressure from RISD President John Maeda. Alswang and Maeda clashed on a number of issues, and her exit led to the museum’s Board of Governors wrestling control from Maeda. Though the president sits on the museum’s board, he no longer has hiring and firing power over the director.

“There were a lot of dissatisfied people, a lot people who felt either betrayed or ‘how can this possibly go on?’ ’’ said William Tsiaras, the incoming chairman of the museum’s board of governors, who was on the board at that time as well. “It wasn’t ‘you do this or we aren’t going to give you any money.’ I think that everybody, however, felt that this would be something that made sense to do.’’

In Smith, the museum gets a leader who now oversees a staff of 50, a budget of $6 million, and nearly 16 million objects. Before his five-year-tenure at the Smithsonian, Smith worked for 11 years at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, serving as assistant director from 2000 to 2006 and, before that, as director of the museum’s archives research center. From 1995 to 1996, he was the Warhol Museum’s interim director.

In 2002, Smith curated “Possession Obsession: Andy Warhol and Collection,’’ an exhibition that traveled to the RISD Museum. In a phone interview, Smith said he looked forward, in particular, to serving as the public face of the museum.

“As a museum director, you need to be out there,’’ Smith said. “You need to meet and know the people in the community. You can’t be shut in your office.’’

In praising the museum’s staff, he singled out Ann Woolsey, the former assistant director for planning, who served as interim director after Alswang’s departure.

“It seems to me that the museum is in really good shape,’’ Smith said. “Attendance is up. There have been a series of really successful exhibitions. Fund-raising is always a challenge. But the museum seems to be in a pretty good place now.’’

Maeda, who declined to discuss Alswang’s exit in 2009, was also unavailable to comment on Smith, a spokesperson said. Smith said he has met with Maeda once and anticipates working well with him. But Smith will report to Tsiaras, who reports to RISD’s board of trustees, as does Maeda.

Peter Weiss, the outgoing chairman of the board of governors, said that the new structure will give Smith the freedom to do his job.

“In the end, everybody said we understand what’s happened at the museum and we don’t want to see it happen again,’’ said Weiss.

In announcing Smith’s hiring, the museum highlighted his ability to raise about $15 million in private and foundation support during his Smithsonian tenure and his push to digitize the archives’ collections.

An Illinois native, Smith graduated from Southern Illinois University and has worked as chief archivist of the Art Institute of Chicago. His exhibitions, while at the Warhol Museum, included “The American Supermarket,’’ “Flowers Observed, Flowers, Transformed,’’ and the first US museum exhibition of British artist Grayson Perry’s work.

“I missed art museums,’’ said Smith. “The archives, as much as we were able to build an interesting publication and exhibition program here, at the core we’re a research institution and I was feeling I missed that role of a museum, and I missed working with curators and educators and dealing with a much broader range of audiences. Plus, RISD’s collection is a great collection.’’

Smith said he doesn’t have any specific plans for the museum, other than to get to know the staff and its needs.

Paula Granoff, a longtime donor and member of the board of governors, said that she likes what she has seen so far. Smith was the clear choice among a strong slate of candidates. She said everyone who met him praised his personality and approach.

“The community will like him,’’ she said. “We already know the curators like him. We already know the professors and the teachers like him. We’re all going to hope for the best from him.’’

Geoff Edgers can be reached at