RISD Receives its Largest Gift Ever

Textile being woven on loom

In 1944, with an initial gift of $100, a shrewd Rhode Island-based entrepreneur and investor named Royal Little established the Rayon Foundation Trust to support the study of textiles at RISD. Since that time, more than $7.3 million in quarterly distributions has benefitted RISD’s Textiles department. When the trust matured, its value had grown to $19.9 million and now stands as the largest single gift in RISD’s history. This cumulative investment of $28 million represents one of the most generous gifts ever by an individual to an art and design school.

“These funds will support experimentation with new materials, technologies and methods....”

RISD President Rosanne Somerson

Little, who founded Textron Inc. in 1923, engineered the company’s transition from a small textiles firm called Special Yarns Company into what today has become a $14.2 billion multi-industry conglomerate with employees in 25 countries. The company’s stupendous growth blossomed from its founder’s expansive vision for Rayon, a material first introduced as synthetic silk.

Photo of many people parachuting by Luke Sharrett, for NPR
photo by Luke Sharrett for NPR

Thinking beyond uses in fashion, Little developed a parachute out of Rayon during World War II and was so confident in its strength and utility that he volunteered to test it himself. He trained at Fort Bragg for four days before jumping from a plane wearing the first Rayon parachute—an innovation that helped give rise to the company Textron is today.

Textron’s strong ties with RISD have endured over many decades as it grew to global prominence. Throughout that time, the company has generously supported numerous RISD Museum exhibitions, including the current major show Gorham Silver: Designing Brilliance 1850–1970, which is on view through December 1. Textron has also funded many scholarships, fellowships and studios at RISD.

Student working on a red sculpture in a RISD studio

“RISD’s partnership with industry has been essential right from our very start in 1877,” says President Rosanne Somerson. “In the 19th century, Rhode Island was at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution with its power-driven textile mills. RISD’s early benefactor Jesse Metcalf was a textiles manufacturer, and it was his wife Helen Adelia Rowe Metcalf who led the Rhode Island Women’s Centennial Commission in founding RISD.”

“RISD’s partnership with industry has been essential right from our very start....”

President Somerson

Critique in RISD studio

The president adds that Little’s philanthropic investment reinforces the important connection RISD has always had with the textiles industry and “provides an enormous lift to our efforts to deliver a world-class art and design education to our students.” His remarkable gift now makes it possible for RISD to offer “a truly unmatched program in Textiles,” Somerson says. “These funds will support experimentation with new materials, technologies and methods to design and create fine art and the development of innovative fabrics that have applications for industry, science and improving people’s lives.”

The Rayon Foundation gift also contributed to RISD’s most successful fundraising year ever, with a total of $30.6 million raised during fiscal year 2018/19, which ended on June 30.

Colorful spools of thread

“I am excited to see the college continue to innovate with textiles...”

Arthur D. Little, son of Textron’s founder

“My father saw boundless possibilities in the uses of Rayon,” says Arthur D. Little, “and that vision has become realized as the fabric is used around the world for countless purposes. It is wonderful to see RISD honor his vision with its use of the Rayon Trust.

I am excited to see the college continue to innovate with textiles by challenging the boundaries of the use of existing textiles and creating wholly new textiles. I know he would be enormously pleased to see his philanthropic legacy extended in this way.”

—RISD photos by Jo Sittenfeld MFA 08 PH

September 16, 2019

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