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RISD Inaugurates 18th President

RISD Inaugurates 18th President

The community comes together to celebrate President Crystal Williams with a two-day symposium, open studios, RISD Craft art sale and more.

President Crystal Williams with Undertow brass band

RISD’s 18th president Crystal Williams on inauguration day with local brass band Undertow.

The mood at RISD during inauguration weekend was joyous. Even the recently reclusive sun appeared on Friday morning, October 7, to witness the inauguration of 18th president Crystal Williams, the first Black leader in RISD’s 145-year history. 

The campus-wide festivities began with a momentous investiture ceremony featuring remarks by RISD trustees, alumni, staff, faculty members and students as well as visiting delegates from other colleges and universities. “President Williams renews my belief in the future of RISD,” said award-winning TV producer and RISD Board Vice Chair Ilene Chaiken 79 GD/P 18. “Her poems rage against the assumptions that restrict human possibility.”

Board Chair Michael Spalter bestows the Chain of Office

profile of Crystal Williams on stage at investiture ceremony

Assistant Dean Tony Johnson sings at investiture ceremony
Williams accepts the Chain of Office from Board of Trustees Chair Michael Spalter, takes the stage in alum-designed robe and enjoys a moving performance by longtime staff member Tony Johnson 93 SC.

Faculty representative Ijlal Muzaffar—an associate professor in RISD’s Liberal Arts division—used his welcome to introduce the concept of new spaces, the organizing theme of the weekend’s events. He referenced scholar and author Elizabeth Alexander, who spotlights Black people’s right to full personhood, and said the time has come to fully open the doors and “transform all rooms, all spaces at RISD.”

New School Provost and longtime Williams friend Renée T. White brought the audience to its feet with her words, sharing a seemingly endless list of the new president’s accomplishments and many firsts.

faculty members give Williams a standing ovation

brass band marches down South Water Street after investiture ceremony
The crowd gets on its feet; Providence brass band Undertow sets a raucous mood.

When it was time for her to speak, Williams stepped up to the podium—resplendent in a brilliant blue robe designed by recent alum Kyra Buenviaje 20 AP—and shifted the narrative to include the larger community. “The bigger story has to do with all of us,” she said, “and our readiness to amplify, evolve, cultivate, engage and connect. One of the mottos I live by is a quote from a line of poetry written by Gwendolyn Brooks, America’s first Black woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry:

we are each other’s
we are each other’s
we are each other’s
magnitude and bond.”

The ceremony closed with a moving performance by alum and longtime staff member Tony Johnson 93 SC—now an associate dean and assistant vice president in RISD’s Center for Social Equity and Inclusion—who belted out True Colors to the accompaniment of his son on bongos. Afterwards, the crowd literally danced up South Water Street to Market Square for an outdoor lunch and performance by Brown/RISD’s Japanese drumming group Gendo Taiko

Gendo Taiko performs in Market Square
Brown/RISD’s Japanese drumming group Gendo Taiko. 

As the weekend progressed, visitors were invited to listen in on brilliant panel discussions making up the New Space(s) Symposium including a closing talk with MacArthur Award-winning antiracism author/scholar Ibram X. Kendi, look inside open studios hosted by departments across campus, enjoy an evening block party with ambience provided by a special WaterFire lighting, and shop for handmade treasures at RISD Craft, a juried sale of alumni and student work.

The symposium got underway on Friday afternoon with an opening keynote conversation between Williams, Chaiken, artist and RISD trustee Shahzia Sikander MFA PT/PR 95 and architect Michael Maltzan BArch 85/P 24. The foursome discussed how the concept of new spaces and new voices has played into each of their creative practices and disciplinary fields.

opening panel of symposium
Williams moderates the opening panel with (from left to right) artist Shahzia Sikander MFA 95 PR/PT, architect Michael Maltzan BArch 85/P 24 and TV producer Ilene Chaiken 79 GD/P 18. 

Early in her career, Chaiken (who is best known for producing groundbreaking television series The L Word and The Handmaid’s Tale) had to fight for a space in which to tell queer stories. Now that she has accrued some privilege in the entertainment industry, she said, she is “making space for others to tell their stories.”

Sikander noted that everything about modern culture is described in binaries: male vs. female, domestic vs. international, nation vs. nation. “My work exists outside of the binary, in an in-between space,” she explained. 

Revelers partied in the glow of a special WaterFire lighting.

Maltzan shared the experience of helplessness and anxiety that comes with sending work out into the public domain. “You can’t control how your work is interpreted once it’s out there,” he said. “It’s terrifying because you don’t want to be misunderstood. But if you can provoke conversation, then you’ve been successful.”

What about politics and having one’s work connected to a specific agenda? one audience member asked. “Reporters always used to ask me if I had an agenda,” Chaiken recalled. “Fuck yes, I have an agenda! To be an artist, you must have an agenda.”

—Simone Solondz / photos by Jo Sittenfeld MFA 08 PH and Matt Watson 09 FAV

Watch the historic inauguration of President Williams and the New Space(s) Symposium’s opening conversation.

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