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Making It in America: RISD Museum presents over one hundred works from its collection
Making It in America, on view October 11, 2013–February 9, 2014. RISD Museum, Providence, RI.

PROVIDENCE, RI.- More than 100 outstanding works of painting, sculpture, and decorative arts from the RISD Museum’s collection illuminate connections between American ambitions and the making of art in Making It in America. The exhibition is on view through Sunday, February 9, 2014.

“American art has played a central role at the RISD Museum since its earliest days, and we celebrate this legacy with Making It in America,” says Museum director John W. Smith. “Drawn exclusively from our phenomenal permanent collection, this show is our first in-depth exploration of this subject in many years.”

Making It in America liberates artworks from the Museum’s galleries, storage vaults, and the historic period rooms of its Pendleton House wing, repositioning them within the broader context of American styles. These exceptional pieces, created between the early 1700s and early 1900s, are presented as examples of both artistic processes and aspirations. Just as individual accounts of American life revolve around searches for freedom, fulfillment, and identity, these stories are also embedded in objects that comprise the history of American art.

“The title is a double entendre that asks our viewers to think about art making and about how American art demonstrates American ideas about success,” explain exhibition co-curators Maureen O’Brien, curator of painting and sculpture, and Elizabeth Williams, curator of decorative arts and design.

John Singleton Copley’s grand manner portrait of Moses Gill, for instance, illustrates the escalating wealth, social standing, and political capital of the 30-year-old merchant and future Massachusetts lieutenant governor. The land of opportunity is seen in painter Thomas Cole’s striking depictions of the American wilderness unspoiled nature ripe with promise. Closer to home, finely designed furniture with hand-carved motifs from Newport’s Townsend and Goddard workshops rivaled European examples in the 18th century, while the glorious excess of monumental silver works by Providence’s Gorham Manufacturing Company represented the city’s ambitions into the 19th and 20th centuries.

Making It in America also touches on a theme for which the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) is best known: the process of making art, a subtext of the show which provides a loose timeline of what happened in American art making and when. The exhibition’s intertwined threads of making art and representing achievement are woven into RISD and the RISD Museum’s own history. Inspired by the international display of art and commerce at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition, the College and Museum were established in 1877 with the mission to train American designers and publicly promote American art. The Museum’s earliest “contemporary” purchase, in 1901, was Winslow Homer’s thundering seascape On a Lee Shore (1900), soon followed by the acquisition of important colonial portraits and American landscape paintings. In 1906, the RISD Museum built Pendleton House, the country’s first museum wing devoted to the display of American decorative arts, thus elevating the importance of native craftsmanship in the study of material culture.

The co-curators note that this exhibition provides exciting opportunities for visitors to explore the Museum’s rich holdings, closely examining objects that may have been behind ropes in period rooms or held in storage. Williams, who joined the RISD Museum in January and has spent much of her first year exploring the diverse decorative arts collection, looks forward to presenting 60 pieces of silver, furniture, glass, ceramics, and jewelry—more than half of which haven’t been on view in decades.

“Although many of the works in Making It in America have been on view in galleries throughout the Museum, visitors who see discrete selections rarely get a sense of the scope and quality of our collections,” says O’Brien.

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