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Rhode Island School of Design Publishes First Historical Anthology

RISD announced the publication of Infinite Radius: Founding Rhode Island School of Design, the first anthology about the establishment of America’s best-known college of art and design in 1877.

Infinite Radius presents a handsome compendium of rare archival photographs, scholarly essays, previously unpublished manuscripts and reproductions of early acquisitions in its impressive collection of art and design. Together, this written and visual material provides invaluable insight into the social and cultural context in which both the academic programs of the School and the broader educational mission of the RISD Museum of Art took root.

Infinite RadiusInfinite Radius takes its title from a RISD founder, the 19th-century educator and activist Sarah Elizabeth Doyle, who was known to remark that the “sphere” of so-called women’s work was one with an “infinite radius.” From the beginning, co-editors Dawn Barrett, RISD’s dean of Architecture and Design, and Andrew Martinez, RISD’s archivist, conceived of the book in a similar, all-encompassing way. Rather than write a traditional, linear narrative of RISD’s history, they chose to curate a collection of 19th-century documents and historical materials, and combine them with thought-provoking essays by historians, critics, former college presidents and other scholars.

“Our goal was to help shed light on the way history has informed and shaped present circumstances,” Martinez says, adding that the true value of studying RISD’s past is to inform its future. The book is intended to inspire further research into the many areas it broaches, from the initial seed funding for the school from the Rhode Island Women’s Centennial Commission, to its early successes thanks to the direction, governance and support of the Metcalf family, to its growing strength in the early 20th century.

Historic Context
Focused primarily on the period between the 1850s and the 1910s, Infinite Radius addresses the earnest but false starts that preceded RISD’s founding, including initial attempts to create a school of design prior to the Civil War. By including developments over the span of six decades, the editors were better able to frame the story of RISD’s birth, while explaining how the foundation grew increasingly strong during the 20th century.

“The circumstances of RISD’s founding and its early success were far less predictable than is often imagined,” Barrett explains. “The motivations for creating a school of design were not solely economic, nor were they singularly focused on manufacturing interests.” Granted, the original mission indicated that students would learn to “apply the principles of Art to the requirements of trade and manufacture.” But this was just one of a composite set of motivating forces, which also included “the systematic training of students in the practice of Art” and “the general advancement of public Art Education” through exhibitions and museum programming, Saturday classes for children and evening classes for adults.

Collaborative Project
The design and print quality of the book reflect the professionalism and dedication of the many members of the RISD community who contributed to its creation. As part of RISD’s 125th anniversary events during the 2002–03 academic year, Barrett and Martinez had hosted a full-day Founder’s Day Forum in which eight speakers presented research on various aspects of RISD’s founding and early years. These papers formed the seed of the new compendium, which also includes subsequent research, original letters and documentation provided by the Metcalf founding family and additional materials from the RISD Archives, the RISD Museum and the Rhode Island Historical Society.

Contemporary writers contributing original essays are: Nancy Austin, Catherine Bert, Helen Burnham, L.J. McLeroy, Thomas Michie, Russell Switzer, Carol Terry and the two editors. The book also contains the unpublished manuscript of historian Elsie Bronson, who chronicled RISD’s first 50 years, and a reprint of the late RISD President John Frazier (a painter and 1912 graduate of RISD who served as president from 1955–62) as well as facsimile reproductions of school and museum catalogues from 1877 to 1900.

Adjunct faculty member Ootje Oxenaar of RISD’s Graphic Design Department designed the book, with production assistance from graduate students in Graphic Design. The project was funded by RISD and supported by private donations, along with grants from the Liberal Arts Humanities Fund, the Division of Architecture and Design and the Archives at the Fleet Library at RISD. A grant from the ADD Fund at The Rhode Island Foundation has enabled copies of Infinite Radius to be available at 50 public libraries throughout the state.

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