As RISD’s first associate provost for research and strategic partnerships, Sarah Cunningham works to support research development and special projects, collaborating with national and international partners that range from community organizations and arts nonprofits to higher education entities and corporate design leaders. Her work involves pursuing pioneering opportunities that demonstrate the catalytic role that design and the arts play in developing new knowledge, building just societies and contributing to innovative modes of sustainability across social, cultural and business sectors.
From 2011–19 Cunningham served as the executive director for research and founding director of the Arts Research Institute at Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts (VCUarts). In this role she facilitated a new partnership with Tate Modern’s Tate Exchange, the Arts Research Institute Fellows Program, research supported by the Qatar Foundation and a Physician-Scientist in Residence Program at VCUarts, among other advancements. She also led think tanks for emerging creatives and higher education leaders at 30 universities, helping them respond to cities in flux and consider new models of integrating art and design with engineering, science and medicine.
Previously Cunningham served as the director for arts education at the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), providing national leadership in all artistic disciplines. In addition to chairing the panel review process, she partnered with various organizations to lead several national initiatives, including the NEA Education Leaders Institute (ELI), Jazz in the Schools, Poetry Out Loud and Summer Schools in the Arts. In founding ELI—a design workshop dedicated to placing arts at the core of public education—Cunningham helped achieve major, sustainable policy change in more than 25 states.
Cunningham has served on the boards of the Alliance for Arts in Research Universities (a2ru), the Arts Education Partnership, the National Guild for Community Arts Education, the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities NAEYHP Awards, the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP) and the Richmond [VA] Public Art Commission. She holds an MA and PhD in philosophy from Vanderbilt University and a BA from Kenyon College, and continues to speak worldwide on arts policy, arts research and education.