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Maria Nicanor named new director of Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

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Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum has named Maria Nicanor its new Executive Director.

Nicanor is currently Executive Director of the Rice Design Alliance (RDA) at Rice University’s School of Architecture in Houston, and will officially assume her new role, beginning March 21.

As executive director of Cooper Hewitt, Nicanor will oversee 86 employees, an annual budget of more than $15 million, and a collection of approximately 215,000. She will also lead the museum’s innovative exhibition programming, which includes a recently launched digital exhibition and strong educational offerings and programs. This includes the annual National Design Awards, which honor the best in American design across a range of disciplines.

“Maria has an impressive passion for design and a deep understanding of the impact it has on our shared future,” Lonnie Bunch, secretary of the Smithsonian, said in a statement. “His vision and leadership will help Cooper Hewitt reach even more audiences across the country and around the world.”

Nicanor has had a long career as a curator of architecture, design and historian.

Since becoming Executive Director of RDA in 2017, she has led an overhaul of the organization’s branding, programming and audience engagement. Most recently, she led a full transition to digital programming in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, in addition to leading fundraising, operations and finance for RDA. Under his leadership, his team broke a fundraising record in 50 years of history.

She hopes to bring her passions and experience to her impending new role as head of Cooper Hewitt.

“Joining the Smithsonian family and building on the past successes of Cooper Hewitt provides the opportunity to bring together the three most important pillars of my career: design and architecture, public service and museum work,” said Nicanor.

“We cannot ignore that this is a particularly complicated period for museums in general at the moment. Not just what we do, but how we do it, for whom and with whom, are key questions for design museums to consider,” she continued.

Prior to her current role at RDA, Nicanor spent over a decade working in art museums and foundations around the world, including the opening of the Norman Foster Foundation in Madrid as its inaugural director. She also spent three years as a curator in the design, architecture and digital department of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

She also held several positions during her eight-year stay at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, including Associate Curator of Architecture and Urbanism and Co-curator of the BMW Guggenheim Lab project.

Nicanor is originally from Spain, born in Barcelona and raised in Madrid. She holds a BA in History and Theory of Art and Architecture from the Autónoma University of Madrid and an MA in Museum and Curatorial Studies from New York University.

Cooper Hewitt celebrates its 125th anniversary this year. Founded in 1897, the organization has been part of the Smithsonian since 1967. Known for being inclusive, innovative and experimental, the museum’s dynamic exhibits, educational programs, master’s program, publications and online resources serve to inspire, educate and empowering people through design.