Back when she was a student at the Rhode Island School of Design (risd), Rosanne Somerson used to deposit her cheques at Providence’s Hospital Trust bank. These days, while the beaux arts columns and central clock hanging from the gilded ceiling remain, the bank is no more: it’s been converted into the main library of one of the world’s most venerable art and design colleges. As for the former industrial-design student? She is now president of risd, a position she has occupied since 2015. “I take great delight in the fact that an institution that was all about money became an institution that is all about learning,” she says.
Assembled in the open-plan space are 15 of Somerson’s closest staff. Although an administrator these days, Somerson is a former faculty member and has kept one foot firmly in the educational sphere with her cabinet. “It doesn’t make sense for the administrative operational team to not understand what’s happening in academia,” she says.
Established in 1877, risd has a global reach. With enrolment across more than 70 countries, former students are spread across the planet. That means Somerson’s job of speaking about the value of design, connecting with the risd network and nurturing fundraising takes her from New York to Hong Kong and beyond.
While she keeps her team on its toes due to the “circuitous and iterative” way her brain works, she adds that “together we get to a new place that would have never happened without all of that rethinking, testing and prototyping”.
David Proulx SVP, finance and administration. “He’s very calm and you can always count on his commitment to his work.”
Maggie Balch Dean of students. “She has created a culture where students feel accepted for who they are.”
Patricia Barbeito Interim dean of faculty. “An incredible scholar who teaches a wonderful range of classes.”
Matthew Shenoda VP, social equity and inclusion.
Candace Baer VP, human resources. “She has a theatre background and will often break into song at a tense moment.”
Damian White Dean of liberal arts.
Scheri Fultineer Dean of architecture and design.
Margot Nishimura Dean of libraries. “She is trained in art history and has a great sense of how collections can contribute to learning.”
Mara Hermano VP, integrated planning. “An art historian who really understands art education. She’s also a total data geek.”
Daniel Cavicchi Vice-provost. “He’s very good at comprehending how to build consensus in large, complex organisations.”
Joanne Stryker Dean of experimental and foundation studies. “She has been the anchor of the first-year experience for nearly 20 years and she really thinks of drawing as a way of thinking.”
Jamie O’Hara VP, enrolment. “Enrolment is the driving revenue of any college and he not only brings in great classes but also the right classes. That’s very calming.”
John Smith Director, RISD Museum. “He has made a shift from thinking about it as an art museum to an artists’ museum – which is huge.”
O’Neil Outar VP, institutional engagement. “I like his critical mind but also his sense of humour.”
Robert Brinkerhoff Dean of fine arts.
An risd student of industrial design in the 1970s, Somerson subsequently set up a design studio. She returned to risd in 1985 as a teacher and helped launch the college’s first furniture-design department, where she worked until 2011 (she’s still committed to producing one piece of furniture a year). She then made the shift into operational leadership when she became provost, before being appointed risd’s president in 2015. It felt like the right step in her career “to help nurture conditions for the next generation of artists”.