Maria Nicanor is tapped to lead the Cooper Hewitt

New Year, New Director

Maria Nicanor is tapped to lead the Cooper Hewitt

The Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum on the Upper East Side of NYC (Ajay Suresh/Wikimedia Commons accessed under the CC BY 2.0 license)

Manhattan’s Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum has had a rough couple of years. The Upper West Side art and architecture museum shut down in March of 2020 alongside other New York institutions to stymie the spread of COVID-19, but only reopened in June of 2021, much later than its peers.

Right before a global pandemic struck, though, the museum found itself in the news when former director Caroline Baumann resigned in February of 2020 after a New York Times expose that questioned whether Baumann had improperly used her position to negotiate wedding dress discounts and special venue privileges. At the time, six of the museum’s 27 board of trustees members resigned in protest over how Baumann was treated, with some questioning whether misogyny was at play in the allegations.

Baumann began working at the Cooper Hewitt in 2001 and was named its director in 2013, seeing the institution through a rebrand by Pentagram and the $91 million renovation of its Carnegie Mansion location by Gluckman Mayner Architects and Beyer Blinder Belle.

Maria Nicanor in a headshot
Maria Nicanor (Christine McLaren)

Today, however, there’s some good news. The Cooper Hewitt has named architecture and design curator and historian Maria Nicanor as its new director, effective March 21. John Davis, Smithsonian Provost, and former Acting Under Secretary for Education Ruki Neuhold-Ravikumar served as interim directors from 2020 through 2022.

Nicanor is currently the executive director of the Rice Design Alliance (RDA) at Rice University’s School of Architecture, a position she has held since 2017. As the Cooper Hewitt noted in its announcement, Nicanor saw the RDA through a turbulent period of operations and fundraising while navigating the transition to digital content during the pandemic.

“I’m grateful and deeply honored to join the exceptional team at Cooper Hewitt,” Nicanor said in the announcement. “Joining the Smithsonian family and building upon Cooper Hewitt’s past successes provides the opportunity to bring together the three most important pillars of my career: design and architecture, public service and museum work. We can’t ignore that it’s a particularly complicated time for museums in general right now. Not just what we do, but how we do it, for whom and with whom, are essential questions for design museums to consider.”

Before her tenure at RDA, Nicanor was the inaugural director of the Norman Foster Foundation in her home city of Madrid and previously held several different positions at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum from 2005 to 2013.

“Maria has an impressive passion for design and a thorough understanding of the impact it has on our shared future,” added Lonnie Bunch, Secretary of the Smithsonian. “Her vision and leadership will help Cooper Hewitt reach even more audiences across the nation and around the world.”

As the museum notes, Nicanor’s appointment coincides with the museum’s 125th  anniversary and the institution currently has a slate of exhibitions running, including in the real world and a digital version of Willi Smith: Street Couture from 2020.