Welcome to this 22nd installment of my series of articles on great American institutions of higher education. Today we travel to Providence to visit one of the best art and design schools on the planet, the Rhode Island School of Design.
My colleague Drew has studied up on the school because of the many aspiring Kiwi artists and designers seeking information about RISD and other American visual arts programs. Because he’s the expert, I thought it best to turn today’s feature over to him. Take it away, Drew.
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DD: Thank you, Ambassador. The Rhode Island School of Design, colloquially known as RISD (pronounced riz-dee), is an intriguing school with the right mix of hands on practical training, small-community feel, and odd quirkiness to attract a significant number of Kiwis, so I’m happy to finally have the opportunity to talk about it in-depth. While there are many other art and design schools in America, not many can match the prestige or location of this one.
RISD annually ranks first amongst art schools by the likes of the U.S. News & World Report and Business Insider. Its award-winning history of breaking trends and thinking outside the box began in 1876, when the Rhode Island Women’s Centennial Commission were so inspired by the exhibits at the American Revolution Centennial Exhibition that they donated their surplus funds, totaling US$ 1,675, to found RISD. This gift inspired donations from the community and wealthy art enthusiasts, birthing a school that was incorporated a year later.
Despite its huge fame, RISD maintains a small campus footprint. The bulk of the institute’s classes and studios are housed inside historical buildings located near downtown Providence and less than a 5-minute walk from the Ivy League’s Brown University. Like Cooper Union and Berklee, RISD does not have a traditional consolidated campus, and its buildings are found within a radius of a few blocks within the city.
With a total student population of 2,386, RISD feel like a small-town community despite its placement amidst a large urban environment. The sense of community is enhanced because students build personal relationships with their faculty, partly because artistic critique requires familiarity between reviewer and reviewee, and partly because the school maintains an outstanding 8-1 student to faculty ratio within their classrooms.
The school’s admissions process is incredibly selective. To aid the decision-making process, students are required to submit a portfolio of their work, samples of writing, and two original drawings. One of the required drawings is the infamous bicycle drawing, a work that must in some way incorporate the two-wheeled icon. For those readers imagining this is an easy task, give it a try. I think you’ll soon realize why the bicycle drawing is a time-honored rite of passage.
Once accepted, students have their pick of a number of elite offerings. The school maintains five divisions: Architecture and Design, Fine Arts, Foundation Studies, Graduate Studies, and Liberal Arts. These divisions contain a host of award-winning programs including #1 rankings (according to U.S. News) for graphic design, printmaking, and industrial design. The painting program is ranked #2, and ceramics and photography are ranked #3.
Students pursuing studio majors at RISD have the opportunity to study a “concentration,” which is similar to a minor at other institutions and gives them a foundation in a liberal arts field to inform their work in the studio. Each concentration is personal and molded to the individual’s needs. Students must adhere to a list of established tracks, but like any liberal arts college two students with the same concentration may take vastly different courses and independent studies to gain their credits.
Foundation Studies is a required portion of the studio curriculum for all first-year undergrad students at RISD. Freshmen are assigned to sections of 20 students that attend three specialized classes in their first year designed to teach skills and techniques required for the more advanced studio work. These day-long classes are meant to instill the correct foundation for success, while simultaneously engaging their imagination and creative psyche, before students start their specialized courses.
In addition to their normal course work, RISD students are encouraged to pursue a multitude of self-driven projects. To facilitate student exploration, the school maintains a number of specialized centers and workshops including a fully functioning art museum, one of the oldest independent art college libraries in America, and the Nature Lab, which contains a massive store of natural history pieces for use in modeling.
RISD’s history, elite programs, student work ethic, and location align well with those of Brown University, resulting in a beneficial collaboration between the schools. Students of either may cross-register for classes at no extra cost, and RISD students are allowed to use the academic and athletic facilities of Brown at their leisure. For those so inclined, students can even pursue a dual degree option where they simultaneously pursue degrees at both RISD and Brown.
With such a superb program, RISD has produced a large number of notable alumni despite its small size, including actors/directors James Franco, Robert Richardson, and Gus Van Sant … funny guys Seth MacFarlane, Charles Rocket, and Martin Mull … Dale Chihuly, Jenny Holzer, Kurt Wenner … photographers Francesca Woodman, Jill Greenberg, and Henry Horenstein … Richard Merkin, Nicole Miller, and 8 MacArthur Fellows.
As you might expect, the traditions of RISD exhibit an artistic flare. A particularly useful one for students is RISD Exposé, a student-run-and-student-curated space which evolves to accommodate whatever particular function is desired or required by students. Examples of uses to which it has been put are high-end art galleries where students display their own work, film screenings, and zine swaps where artists and authors exchange their personal works.
One of my personal favorite RISD traditions is the Thunderdome. One day a year, students construct elaborate armor costumes and weaponry made from foam pool noodles, march to the campus green, amp up epic music, and engage in a battle royale. Much like Highlander, there can be only one winner, who is then celebrated as one might expect.
RISD is committed to showing the world the tangible benefits of art and culture, dubbing their mission “STEM to STEAM” by putting Art back into the equation. That commitment manifests in part through a history of service work in Providence, including ”POSE” (Pre-Orientation Service Experience). Incoming freshmen may choose to arrive on campus earlier than normal and participate in a scheduled week of POSE service work and bonding within the surrounding community, typically through public art and teaching projects.
Like other institutions featured on the Ambassador’s blog, RISD does have a mascot, and students and athletic teams at RISD do have a nickname. The iconoclastic artists of RISD, however, chose a particular human anatomical feature to represent the school which the Ambassador suggests I don’t picture here. If you’re curious, just google it. The mascot appears regularly at RISD sporting events, which are club oriented, fan driven, and well attended.
A great advantage for students is living in Providence, the capital of Rhode Island. An historic metropolitan area of 1.6 million residents, Providence engineered itself over the past four decades from industrial hub to creative center by emphasizing art and design, opening up green space, uncovering waterways, and pouring money into public art. Providence is now considered one of the top 25 art destinations in America. It has a multitude of art galleries and festivals, and hosts four elite universities which spark innovation.
Students and visitors don’t have to be art connoisseurs to enjoy Providence, though. There are high-end shopping and eating establishments throughout the city, as well as a multitude of events including WaterFire, the Spring Flower and Garden Show, and the International Film Festival. Plus you can enjoy regular offereings at the Tony Award-winning Trinity Repertory Company, Providence Performing Arts Center, Waterplace Park, First Baptist Church in America, Westminster Arcade, or the Athenaeum.
Rhode Island is the smallest American State geographically (with only 3,140 square kilometers of land), but it packs an immense number of recreational activities into that space. The State’s rich coastlines offer excellent fishing and watersport opportunities. There are miles of pristine beachfront that allow for lounging and frequent games of volleyball. There are also a multitude of treks along the water for those seeking panoramic vistas, while the interior of the island is spider-webbed with trails for hiking and biking which wind through beautifully wooded acres for camping.
The historic and emotional heart of sailing and golf in America, the city of Newport is an excellent example of what you can enjoy not far from campus. There is of course world-class sailing and yachting, and beautiful golf courses. It is also home to the Newport Historic District and Bellevue Lane, both of which are National Historic Landmark Districts, the Newport Mansions, the International Tennis Hall of Fame, the Newport Winter Festival, the Touro Synagogue, the Newport Folk Festival, and the International Oktoberfest.
Boston is about an hour’s drive north of RISD, while New York City is just over two hours south by car, bus or train. Glorious roadtrips through the bucolic New England countryside are close at hand, and Montreal is just 6 hours away if you would like to spend a long weekend polishing your French. To sum it up, the area offers a great quality of life coupled with great access to anything and everything you might want or like.
For more specific information about RISD’s programs and majors, the admissions process, and the unique educational opportunities available, take a look at the school’s main website. If you have any specific questions about the Rhode Island School of Design, or other institutions, feel free to shoot me an email at DumasAG@state.gov or tweet me @EducationUSANZ.
I’ve heard a bit about RISD from my good friend and distinguished RISD alumna Anita. I learned all I need to know about the quality and benefit of a RISD education by seeing the extraordinary designs, art works, and projects that she has created over the course of her career to-date, including the many handcrafted cards and letters that she has sent me. I endorse Drew’s observations and suggest that you consider RISD if anything he said intrigues or attracts you.