Warm Welcome for RISD’s New President

Threatening skies didn’t dampen spirits last Friday, October 9, as RISD faculty, staff, students and alumni joined with other special guests at the historic Roger Williams National Memorial for the inauguration of President Rosanne Somerson 76 ID, the first alumna to hold this position. A processional that included trustees, speakers, RI Governor Gina Raimondo and US Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse took the stage accompanied by modern string music from multitalented siblings and Brown/RISD dual degree majors Lukas Bentel DD 15 FD, Nikolas Bentel DD 16 ID and Michaela Bentel DD 17 ID – embodiments of what Reed called RISD’s “creative force.”

Board of Trustees Chair Michael Spalter – who welcomed guests and emceed the ceremony – praised Somerson’s “vision, grace, humility and integrity,” descriptors that were echoed by many of the speakers who would follow him to the podium. Longtime Illustration Professor Robert Brinkerhoff went so far as to offer telling examples from his personal experience of how the new president deftly makes use of these qualities and her “sincere respect for others” to strengthen a sense of community and shared purpose in her day-to-day interactions on campus.

Brinkerhoff was one of only a few men to speak during the decidedly female-fueled ceremony. In addition to the Providence-based powerhouses Raimondo, Somerson and Brown University President Christina Hull Paxson, inauguration speakers included prominent alumni Janine Antoni MFA 89 SC, Kara Walker MFA 94 PR/PT and Nicole Miller 73 AP, students Yelitsa Jean-Charles 16 IL and Chereth Hines-Channer MArch 16 and Vice Chair of the Board Lisa Pevaroff-Cohn 83 TX, who contributed to the party atmosphere with her rhinestone-studded glasses and spectacular tiara.

Each of the students and former students at the podium shared her support for Somerson and spoke of her transformative experience at RISD. Walker remembered coming to Providence as a kind of tabula rasa, beginning her life as an artist with a completely open outlook. “As artists, we start with nothing but intentions and optimism,” she noted. “The rage that burns within us is optimism at its best.”

Antoni expressed the importance of community via a “ritual transformative gesture” in which she asked the approximately 1,500 people in attendance to join hands and pass their positive intentions forward to the president in a wave of hand squeezes that began in the very back of the audience with Somerson’s 92-year-old aunt and direct descendants of RISD’s founders Stephen and Pauline Metcalf. “I want you to have this memory of our collective support,” she told Somerson. “We are with you.”

Vision for the future

In delivering her inaugural address, President Somerson spoke about feeling like something of a direct descendant of the “pioneering women” who founded RISD. “In creating this school they proved that women were quite capable of leading the charge – building something new when society was failing to address their needs,” Somerson said. “In an era when most doors were closed to them, they simply built a new doorway. And we have been walking through it ever since.”

Somerson went on to speak about the fundamental value of art and design to human creativity and innovation, predicting that “the world’s need for art and design will only increase. While it’s impossible to solve all of the world’s problems, we can have a major impact on the future…. RISD must never become too inwardly focused or lose sight of our unique capabilities to contribute to global ideals. Wherever imagination is lacking, we can help,” she promised.

RISD Museum Director John Smith and London-based Tate Modern Director Chris Dercon, whose daughter is now a first-year student at RISD, spoke on behalf of the museum community. “There is nothing more appropriate,” Smith said, “than having an artist at RISD’s helm.” Dercon praised the RISD Museum’s Latin-American collection (which he noted was better than MoMA’s) and declared that “RISD’s model of immersive learning is truly unique around the world.”

Marked by a shared sense of warmth and good feelings, the ceremony wrapped up with Assistant Dean of Student Affairs Tony Johnson 93 SC singing a spirited rendition of Lean on Me that brought the crowd to its feet. The sky darkened further as the audience began to leave the pavilion, giving way to a typical Providence downpour. Carrying umbrellas and plants – as part of a “walking forest” event organized by the Nature Lab’s Lucia Monge MFA 15 SC ­– revelers were treated to another impressive water display, Hardu Keck: Fireman’s Fountain, an installation featuring three gushing fire trucks positioned around the Providence River at Steeple Street.

As darkness fell, the campus came alive with projections, recorded sound and live music. Visitors moved fromParade by Film/Animation/Video Department Head Dennis Hlynsky 74 FAV to Koronka by Associate Professor of Film/Animation/Video Agnieszka Woznicka to The Origin of Clouds by Assistant Professor of Experimental and Foundation Studies Alejandro Borsani. They gradually climbed the stairs from Market Square to Moore Terrace to Benefit Street, enjoying the sounds of progressively harder-edged live bands along the way as well as delicious treats provided by a fleet of food trucks.

The clouds overhead dissipated as the evening wound down, revealing a handful of bright and hopeful stars that seemed to suggest that RISD is in good hands.