RISD, Without Hope

the mysterious resignation of a museum director

by by Marisa Calleja

illustration by by Liana Ogden

The Rhode Island School of Design Museum reopened after summer holiday this month with a new director. The previous director, Hope Alswang, announced her resignation on August 3. Though an official statement explained that Alswang left the Museum to “pursue other opportunities,” there have been conflicting explanations by key donors, Museum Board members and RISD administrators.

Days after Alswang's resignation, 19 members of the Museum’s 30-person Board of Governors sent a letter to the school’s board of trustees. The letter, obtained by the Providence Journal, reveals that within the board, “the current sentiment about Alswang's departure runs from puzzlement and disappointment to outrage.” It continues: “and those feelings have been amplified by the lack of engagement between the Board of Governors, [RISD president] John Maeda and [the board of trustees] in the decision-making process.”

As notable as the sentiments the letter conveyed is the social and economic clout of its signers, who include longtime donors like Paula Granoff, Pauline Metcalf and Jane Carroll Chace, for whom the new Chace Center is named. The museum board’s chairman, Arnold-Peter Weiss, signed as well. Losing these donors would be financially catastrophic.

The mystery and confusion surrounding the letter has only been accentuated by the fact that Alswang hasn’t spoken to the media since issuing her statement. (One Journal reporter wrote that the only ones to greet him at Alswang’s home were a “pair of curious cats.”) Likewise, Maeda’s office has remained equally mum on the topic. An official statement released the same day as Alswang’s resignation sang the ex-director's praises and maintained that her resignation was voluntary.

Maeda held a meeting for RISD students, staff and faculty two weeks after the resignation to discuss the situation; it was closed to the public and the press. His office would not make an additional statement to the College Hill Independent.

The museum was closed for the month of August. When it reopened the first week in September, Ann Woolsey, a longtime veteran of the museum and an important force in creating the Chace Center, had stepped in to fill Alswang’s post. She is the latest of several directors since 1991, when Franklin W. Robinson left because of animosities with the RISD president at the time. Since then no director has lasted more than five years, including Alswang, who would have began her fifth year this fall.

Woolsey plans to move forward, and told the Independent that she hopes to make more of the Museum’s sizable collection accessible to the public both in the galleries and electronically. She also said that she has been surprised by the level of support for exhibitions and educational programs in light of Rhode Island’s financial troubles. This statement stands in contrast with the reality of RISD’s financial status. The art school’s endowment has dropped by over $120 million since December 2007, down to about $250 million in May. It was also closed for all of last month as a cost cutting strategy, and the Providence Journal reported that the Museum laid off some of its workers.

Paula Granoff, a prominent donor to the museum, member of the board and a signer of the August letter told the Journal that RISD and its museum used to be more financially autonomous. In the 1990s a review was conducted based on decades of finances, and resolved that approximately 30 percent of the school's endowment would go to the museum while the rest would go to the college. As Laura Urbanelli, a former interim director of the museum (she held the post from 2003 to 2005) told the ProJo, “the museum was at the mercy of the college. If they over-spent or under-budgeted, we suffered.”

One hopes that the city’s foremost arts resource—one of the country’s largest university-owned collections—will be able to resolve whatever tensions and miscommunications that may exist between the school's leadership and the museum.

MARISA CALLEJA B’10 does not intend to hold her position for more than five years.