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RISD puts its history on display

Editors' Note: A previous version of this story contained material similar to text that appeared in other written sources. An Editors' Note was published in the Oct. 31, 2011, Herald. That Editors' Note can be found here.

Students at the Rhode Island School of Design's Fleet Library may have noticed nostalgic displays around the building of yellowing newspaper articles from the turn of the century, tattered yearbooks and even a copy of the school's Act of Incorporation. And what is that photograph of the RISD Designers, the all-male RISD football team that certainly is no longer around today?

After 125 years of fine arts and design education, RISD decided it was time to take a look at its roots. The product of that endeavor is "Infinite Radius: Founding Rhode Island School of Design," the school's first historical anthology, parts of which are on display in the library.

"The book spun out of our 125th Anniversary Celebration in the 2002-2003 academic year," said Andrew Martinez, RISD's archivist and curator for the exhibit, who co-edited the book with Dean of the Division of Architecture and Design Dawn Barrett.

The idea for the anthology came about when Martinez and Barrett hosted a Founder's Day Forum for the anniversary celebration in which eight speakers presented research on various aspects of RISD's founding and early years.

"After the symposium, we thought this material deserved a wider audience," Martinez said. The book also includes material from the archives, much of which has never before been published, including course catalogues from the 1890s and hundred-year-old class photographs.

Like the many successive 19th century groups that tried to found a school of design in Rhode Island, previous committees formed to compile RISD's history have also suffered their share of false starts.

"Once the committees started ... they realized (the projects) were more involved than they thought," said Martinez, who wrote the book's first chapter, titled "A History of RISD's Histories."

On such occasions, the book's preface says, "Doyle was known to remark that the sphere of so-called women's work could only be understood as a sphere were it one with an ‘infinite radius.'"

RISD's founders succeeded where others had failed, Martinez said, because "RISD was backed by women, who seemed a little more devoted to the cause."

"I think (RISD's founders) set their goals a little lower, and had more realistic ambitions and day-to-day, hands-on management," he added.

The book describes how the school's plans came together on a whim — RISD was founded when a group of women raised extra funds for the 1876 World's Fair, then known as the Centennial Exposition.

"On that cold Thursday morning, almost four dozen members of the R.I. Women's Centennial Commission gathered to decide what to do with the $1500 remaining in their treasury," wrote design historian Nancy Austin in her contribution to the anthology.

With the World's Fair over, the commission was looking for a memorial to commemorate its fundraising success. The decision was down to either investing the money or building a drinking fountain in Roger Williams Park, but neither option could win a majority of members' votes.

Then Helen Metcalf, whose son donated Brown's Metcalf Research Laboratory, offered the winning proposition: The group eventually voted to use the relatively modest sum of money to plant the seeds for a school of design, banking on community support to follow the modest donation. Austin quotes the group's secretary, Eliza Manchester, writing in a front-page newspaper article defending the group's controversial decision: "We all know what a beginning is worth — that a nucleus soon draws to itself what is necessary to its successful growth. Our $1500 shall be that nucleus. Will not the lovers of art in Providence supply the material which shall make its completeness?"

A public launch celebration for "Infinite Radius" will take place Saturday as part of the RISD by Design weekend event for alumni and parents.


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