Thinking Big and Going Local at the RISD Museum

What happens when a museum with a global collection goes local? The RISD Museum, which connects the famed Rhode Island School of Design to the Providence, Rhode Island, community, has taken local sourcing to new heights this season.

A major exhibition at the museum from June through early November, Locally Made, encompasses the work of roughly 300 artists for whom Providence is the nearest urban center. However, the museum hasn’t stopped at putting local art on its walls; it is serving as a forum, schoolhouse, and laboratory for the Providence community through the innovative public programming surrounding the show.


In a unique move, the museum has temporarily converted a gallery to a public programming space known as One Room, marked by the installation School House Long House, in which a diversity of programming takes place every day the museum is open. These moments, experiences, and happenings span a range of formats – including “assembly,” a series of “casual meetings of the minds” curated by members of Providence’s maker community, and an open office hours program featuring local artists and designers.

In my own explorations of the programs, I have been urged to find my power animal, learned the methods of latte art, and discussed Egyptian influences with an illustrator. Disparate as these experiences and their participants may seem, they all fit within the scope of One Room and the spirit of Locally Made. In conversation, the RISD Museum staff members primarily responsible for One Room, Deborah Clemons and Hollis Mickey, commented on the programming’s ability to engage people who might not typically view themselves in a museum context. This inclusive concept of what can happen in a museum, and the idea of public programming as an invitation to enter the museum and take part, presents an appealing model as museums seek to understand the roles they can play within their communities.

The museum has also taken a broad view of terms like “artist” and “designer,” choosing to highlight not only the area’s many visual artists and traditional designers, but also innovators who create new products, ideas, and methods. As Mickey explains, this focus on the idea of making, rather than on a specific format, has allowed the museum to serve as a “momentary hub” for conversations and experiences that transcend the occupational, social, and disciplinary distinctions that often permeate communities.

RISD_Museum-Locally_Made-One_Room4Central to the One Room programming is its focus on process. Artists and designers are constantly working, creating, and producing, but these processes tend to take place behind closed doors. One Room programs aim to open these doors by bringing process into the public sphere and inviting discussion of the methods and efforts that go into production. Clemons notes the significance of holding these happenings within a “museum full of finished objects,” including the finished objects that comprise the Locally Made exhibition upstairs. By fostering a more holistic view of the creative process and its many iterations, One Room allows for an “intimate interaction with an artist or designer,” as Mickey notes, and new ways of using museum spaces.

The focus on programming that the One Room space has provided has enabled a degree of experimentation and has allowed Clemons and Mickey to take a “laboratory” approach to their work. The hope is that this laboratory environment will establish a foundation for sustainable approaches that the museum can take as it explores its relationships with artists, innovators, and their communities. As I have explored Locally Made and the One Room programs, I have been struck by the way in which the programs have served as a point of entry to the region’s creativity; for me and for others, the museum has frequently become the “momentary hub” that Mickey describes. These successes suggest that as museums seek new roles within their communities, there’s plenty of room within the local context to think big.


Laura Mitchell is the Plinth editor and contributor for the New England region and an M.A. candidate in Public Humanities at Brown University. She is on twitter @lb_mitch.