Eyes on the RISD Museum Web Site

Last May, I wrote a cover story for the Phoenix about newish RISD Museum Director John Smith and his grand challenge: to add some shine to the museum, an underappreciated and underperforming gem.

Smith, an energetic character with a populist touch, laid out an interesting vision for the place. But things move slowly in Museum Land; exhibits are planned months and even years in advance.

So it's only now that we're really seeing the fruits of his labor. And in this week's cover story, I go back to the museum for a peek at what we might call the start of the Smith era: "Lists: To-dos, Illustrated Inventories, Collected Thoughts, and Other Artists' Enumerations from the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art," which opens tomorrow, and the more ambitious "Artist/Rebel/Dandy: Men of Fashion," which opens April 28.

I'll let the story speak for itself. Here, I want to highlight another initiative I mentioned just in passing in this week's story: the launch of a new museum web site, set for some time next month.

A new site may seem a small thing. But the web, in recent years, has become something like the digital wing of the American museum. From my May story:

Last year, the Museum of Modern Art's "Talk to Me" exhibition on the communicative capacity of design — the premise: everything from spoon, to city, to social network talks to us — took on a second life at its strange, colorful, hyperconnected website.

The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts is currently offering "Clark Remix," a physical gallery-cum-digital space that allows web site users to curate their own shows.

Smith says the art museum website has become "almost this separate institution that you're running online" — a hybrid of digital programming and social networking designed to keep pace with a rapidly evolving conception of what, exactly, constitutes the art-going community.

RISD, Smith says, has lagged behind in this area. And he is planning a major upgrade. He will sign a contract for a website redesign shortly. And the museum has already done much of the back-end work to put hundreds of works online, starting this summer.

"Six, nine months from now, a year from now," he says, "what we're doing online is just going to be a thousandfold increase over what we're doing now."

His six-to-nine-month timeline was a bit optimistic. We'll see if his vision for the site, which will soft launch next month - allowing for under-the-radar revision - matches up with reality.

But he told me this week that will feature 1500 to 2000 digitized images from the museum's collection and some interesting video, among other things. We'll be watching.


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