Maria Nicanor Departs Rice Design Alliance to Direct Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum

by Jessica Fuentes March 16, 2022
A headshot photograph of Maria Nicanor.

Maria Nicanor. Photo: Christine McLaren

Maria Nicanor, the Executive Director of Rice Design Alliance (RDA), has been appointed as the Director of Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York. She will start her new position on March 21, 2022.

Ms. Nicanor joined RDA, which manages public programs and outreach for the Rice School of Architecture, in 2017. In her time at the organization, she led the development of programs that expanded support for the design community, including lectures, research grants, awards for emerging architects, studio visits, design competitions, and international travel programs. Additionally, she guided the growth of RDA’s publication, Cite: The Architecture and Design Review of Houston

In an announcement by RDA, Board Member Daimian Hines, a principal at Hines Architecture + Design, remarked, “RDA truly benefited from Maria’s leadership and passion for design. She was committed to excellence, inclusion, and ensuring that the organization was connected to the global design community. Maria brought design intelligence, persistence, and a talent for communication.”

He continued, “In recent years, she led the organization as we experienced the aftermath of George Floyd’s death and the challenges of the global pandemic. Maria proved that RDA had a role in amplifying issues that impacted Houston.”

In her new role, Ms. Nicanor will draw on her rich experiences as an architecture and design curator and historian. Prior to joining RDA, she served as the inaugural director of the Norman Foster Foundation in Madrid, a curator at the Design, Architecture, and Digital Department of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and associate curator of Architecture and Urbanism and curator of the BMW Guggenheim Lab project at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

In the Smithsonian’s release announcing her appointment, Ms. Nicanor shared, “I’m grateful and deeply honored to join the exceptional team at Cooper Hewitt. 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.” She continued, “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.”

As Director of Cooper Hewitt, Ms. Nicanor will lead the museum’s exhibition programming, which includes a digital exhibition platform and educational programming. She will oversee 86 employees, a $15 million annual budget, and a collection of approximately 215,000 objects. 

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

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