Arts & Culture

RISD Museum offers free entry on Inauguration Day

arts & culture editor
Thursday, January 26, 2017

In response to the sentiments of anger and trepidation surrounding the Trump presidency expressed by many within the art community, the Rhode Island School of Design Museum offered free admission to the public on Inauguration Day Jan. 20.

The free admission elicited a positive response from the Providence public. According to Colleen Mullaly, the RISD Museum’s manager of visitor services, 378 people visited the museum that day. “A typical Friday in January may have half that number,” she said.

The decision to offer free entry came largely in response to a call for collective anti-Trump resistance in the art world, known as the #J20 Art Strike, said Amee Spondike, director of development and external affairs for the RISD Museum.

“We are always looking at the community at large and thinking about our place within the art world. Very early it became clear that the #J20 group was calling for a boycott of sorts,” Spondike said.

The movement, made up of artistic institutions and artists who asked museums, galleries and other spaces “to close on the day of the inauguration as a form of concern about what the Trump presidency might look like in terms of freedom of expression and … human rights in general,” said Director of the RISD Museum John Smith.

But after witnessing expressions of solidarity through social media outlets and discussing the movement with RISD President Rosanne Somerson and colleagues at other museums, the RISD Museum directors decided to keep its doors open to the public.

“Instinctively, (closing) didn’t feel like the right idea to me or (Smith) — as an art museum, it felt like a waste of an opportunity for us,” Spondike said. “We both agreed to be open and free that day — both of our moral compasses pointed to this, and I’m proud of that decision,” she added.

“We are a public institution that considers itself welcoming, where people can gather in good times, bad times and everything in between,” Smith said. “Free admission sends a very strong message about our belief that museums are places that are inclusive places where conversations can occur between and among people of all backgrounds and all points of view.”

The directors did not intend the free admission to be interpreted as a direct political statement, but rather as an acknowledgement of the art community concern surrounding the incoming Trump administration’s attitude toward the arts, Smith said. Through this decision, they hoped to assert the vitality of art within a civil society.

The museum’s intent was to remain inclusive, an open space that stimulates conversation, Smith added. “Museums are community spaces where people of all backgrounds can and should come together.”

As there is “really something here for everyone … this was an opportunity for us to open our doors, as we hope that everyone feels safe at the RISD Museum,” Spondike said. “Art museums can play a role in helping us share in moments of humanity … and help spark a greater understanding.”

The RISD Museum was not the only art institution offering free admission on Inauguration Day. Others offered a “pay what you want” option, extensive programming or lectures, while others went about business as usual, Smith said. 

“The arts community is as diverse as a country. I am sure that across the country there are artists and others who support Trump and others who obviously feel strongly the other way,” Smith said. “I think and hope that (what) artists share in common is the belief that freedom of expression in whatever form that takes is something to be celebrated rather than something to be denied.”


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