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RISD redefined

With the dramatic new Chace Center, the art school reaches outward
By GREG COOK  |  September 25, 2008

GRAND OPENING: Moneo’s redesign signifies RISD’s heightened engagement with Providence and
the world beyond.

"In context: Why — and how — the chace center works," by Peter Kadzis

"Man and machine: John Maeda talks about technology — and his quest to understand RISD," by Ian Donnis

Rhode Island School of Design’s new Chace Center, which celebrates its grand opening this Saturday, September 27, is the physical embodiment of the 131-year-old institution’s effort to rebrand itself as a more open place, a RISD that is more engaged with the world — particularly the part that includes Providence.

So the $34 million, five-story, 43,000 square foot Chace Center fronts North Main Street, faces downtown, and has the school’s name written in big silver letters across the facade. “We’ve occupied so many borrowed and reused buildings. We’ve never been in a place that you know is RISD,” James Hall, assistant director of the RISD Museum, tells me. “This is the front door of RISD . . . . For the first time in our history, we’re saying, ‘This is where we are. Please come in.’ ”

The building is just the start. You can hear the message of engagement when new RISD president John Maeda says, “A priority as I enter my first year at RISD is to make communications more open.” And then he blogs at, begun in January in one of his first public moves as president.

You can see it in the handsome new RISD Museum Web site launched on September 17 to coincide with Chace’s opening. The former Web site was a decade-old, confusing, and visually constipated branch from Now it’s a crisp, clear, beautiful virtual experience, standing alone at

RISD Museum director Hope Alswang is talking about engagement — in the form of growing the museum’s audience — when she says the Chace Center will help the museum continue to offer rigorous scholarly exhibits, but also more “very popular” exhibits like the splashy Dale Chihuly glass show, the first one in the new building.

Am I reaching too far when I wonder if the message is even in the Chace Center’s orange brick? The color recalls the Home Depot logo, maybe possibly suggesting that the “Design” in RISD is not just high-end stuff, but “You can do it, we can help” home improvement.

Some have long seen RISD as a snooty East Side enclave — even as it has expanded and reached across the river into downtown — happily inwardly focused, aloof from the city. RISD’s effort at engagement, Halls says, reflects “a gradual process. I think artists are becoming again very socially aware, engaged in environmental issues, political issues.”

 Maeda and Roger Mandle, who left this summer after 15 years as RISD’s president, have argued, Hall says, that “if design is a strategic national resource, if the US is going to lead by being a creative economy, you can’t do it behind closed doors. . . . We want to play a leading role in bringing creativity to the public and to the boardroom. And that’s what you can’t do behind closed doors. You have to be open. You have to be welcoming.”

A new hub in Providence
The start of the RISD Museum is dated to the founding of the school in 1877. The original bylaws call for “the general advancement of public art education by the collection and exhibition of works of art and by lectures and by other means of instruction in the fine arts.”

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  Topics: News Features , U.S. Green Building Council, Rafael Moneo, Judith Tannenbaum,  More more >
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