Having steered the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum away from a grand expansion plan, director Paul Thompson is now sailing for England to take up the post of rector of the Royal College of Art, which bills itself as the world’s only postgraduate art and design school.
The official announcement is expected on Friday, but Thompson told the British newspaper Building Design (BD), “It’s an incredible privilege and honor. It’s a very exciting time for design and the college.” BD also wrote that Royal College insiders had responded with “shock” to the news, apparently expecting that the job was going to someone within. The outgoing rector, Sir Christopher Frayling, has held the post since 1996; notable alumni have included David Adjaye, Thomas Heatherwick, and Sir James Dyson. It is thought that designer and RCA professor Ron Arad, a magnet for creative students, might well leave the school as well.
Among those interviewed for the job was Aaron Betsky, director of the Cincinnati Art Museum and the director of this year’s Venice Biennale. Speaking by phone on his way from Abu Dhabi back to Ohio, Betsky said he did not believe he had been a serious contender: “It’s a place with a lot of problems. I wish them luck.” His own plans for an expansion of the Cincinnati Art Museum to be designed by the Dutch firm Neutelings Riedijk were placed on hold a few weeks ago. “We’re not abandoning the project,” he said, “just taking a breather.” Others names in the running were said to be Richard Koshalek, late of the Pasadena Art Center, Deyan Sudjic, currently heading the London Design Museum, and Alice Rawsthorn, International Herald Tribune design critic.
Thompson came to the Cooper-Hewitt in 2001 after holding the same position at the Design Museum in London. “We’re all sad, but Paul left the institution in such good shape,” said a spokesperson at the Cooper-Hewitt, noting that the announcement was not yet official. “He’s been so careful and tried to be cautious.” For years, plans to expand the museum possibly into or under the garden were bruited about but, in the end, Thompson took a more conservative route.