Maria Nicanor, executive director of the Rice Design Alliance (RDA) at Rice University’s School of Architecture in Houston, has been named the director of Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, effective March 21. An architecture and design curator and historian, Nicanor has an established career in museum and curatorial work and brings a rich background in architecture and design to the role.
Nicanor will oversee 86 employees, an annual budget of over $15 million and a collection of about 215,000 objects. She will also lead the museum’s innovative exhibition programming, featuring a newly launched digital exhibition platform and robust educational offerings and programs, including the annual National Design Awards, which recognize the best in American design across a range of disciplines. Nicanor joins Cooper Hewitt as it celebrates its 125th anniversary and shares content throughout the year that highlights the importance of design in the past, present and future.
“Maria has an impressive passion for design and a thorough understanding of the impact it has on our shared future,” said 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.”
Since 2017, Nicanor has been the executive director of RDA, the public programs and outreach arm of the Rice School of Architecture and the leading design organization in Houston. As executive director she has overseen the development of content and programming, including lectures, the Houston Design Research Grant program, the annual Spotlight Award for emerging architects, design competitions, an international travel program and the annual print publication Cite: The Architecture and Design Review of Houston. During her tenure, she led a re-envisioning of the organization’s branding, programming and audience engagement, and recently spearheaded a full transition to digital programming in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. She also directed fundraising, operations and finance for RDA, celebrating an annual gala for Houston’s design community and managing a 40-person board of directors. Under her leadership, in 2019 her team hit an all-time fundraising record in the organization’s 50-year history.
“I’m grateful and deeply honored to join the exceptional team at Cooper Hewitt,” Nicanor said. “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 joining RDA, Nicanor spent more than a decade working at art museums and foundations across the globe. Before her move to Houston, she led the opening of the Norman Foster Foundation in Madrid, her hometown, as its inaugural director. She was a curator at the design, architecture and digital department of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London from 2013 to 2016.
Before that, she held several positions at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York between 2005 and 2013, including associate curator of architecture and urbanism and co-curator of the BMW Guggenheim Lab project, a traveling architectural project. At the Guggenheim, she curated and worked on several contemporary art, architecture and design exhibitions and publications, including “Participatory City” and “Frank Lloyd Wright: From Within Outward,” among other large-scale exhibitions and projects for the New York, Bilbao and Berlin locations of the foundation. During her last years at the Guggenheim, Nicanor was also part of the team leading the international architecture competition for the Guggenheim Museum in Helsinki. She continues to work and consult with organizations and city governments on the development and good practice of design competitions and urban design policy.
Nicanor was born in Barcelona and raised in Madrid. She holds a bachelor’s degree in art and architectural history and theory from the Autónoma University of Madrid, which she partly completed at the Sorbonne University Paris, and a master’s degree in museum and curatorial studies from New York University.
Nicanor succeeds Caroline Baumann, who served as the museum’s director from 2013 to 2020. John Davis and Ruki Neuhold-Ravikumar served as interim directors from 2020 to 2022.
About the Museum
Founded in 1897, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum has been part of the Smithsonian since 1967. Inclusive, innovative and experimental, the museum’s dynamic exhibitions, education programs, master’s program, publications and online resources inspire, educate and empower people through design. The museum is located on New York City’s Museum Mile in the historic, landmark Carnegie Mansion. Steward of one of the world’s most diverse and comprehensive design collections—over 215,000 objects that range from an ancient Egyptian faience cup dating to about 1100 BC to contemporary 3D-printed objects and digital code—Cooper Hewitt welcomes everyone to discover the importance of design and its power to change the world.
About the Search Committee
The search committee for this role was assisted by an executive search firm; the committee members were:
- Kevin Gover, search committee chair, Under Secretary for Museums and Culture
- Daryl Cannon, assistant director of advancement operations, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
- Antionette Carroll, founder, president and CEO, Creative Reaction Lab
- Paul Herzan, member, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum advisory board
- Jon Iwata, chair, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum advisory board
- Aviva Rosenthal, director, Smithsonian’s Office of International Relations
- Sandy Speicher, chief executive officer, IDEO
- Margaret Stewart, member, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum advisory board
- Yao-Fen You, acting deputy director of curatorial, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
The committee was assisted by Greg Bettwy, chief of staff for the Smithsonian Secretary, and Becky Klein and Sarah James from the search firm of Phillips Oppenheim.