February 8, 2022

HOUSTON - February 8, 2022 – Maria Nicanor, executive director of Rice Design Alliance (RDA), Rice Architecture’s public programs and outreach arm, will become the next director of Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York, effective March 21, 2022. View the public announcement from the Smithsonian.

“We are grateful to Maria Nicanor for leading the Rice Design Alliance through a period of unprecedented growth and transformation and amidst many global challenges,” said Igor Marjanović, the William Ward Watkin Dean of Rice Architecture. “Her grace, energy and curiosity will be sorely missed in the Houston design community.”

Nicanor, an architecture and design curator and historian, joined Rice University in 2017, where she played a critical role in the success of a new phase of RDA, connecting it to a wider discourse around the importance of architecture and design in everyday life. She led the development of content and programs, including lectures, the Houston Design Research grants, the Spotlight Award for emerging architects, the RDA Gala—as well as studio visits, design competitions, architecture tours, and international travel programs. She also led the evolution and expansion of the publication Cite: The Architecture and Design Review of Houston. Together with RDA’s dedicated stakeholders and staff members, Nicanor worked collaboratively to diversify the voices and stories of RDA.

“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. 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. Through her diligence, I always felt connected to RDA, and I wish her and the organization continued success,” said RDA Board Member Daimian Hines, principal, Hines Architecture + Design, and former president, National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA), Houston.

Upon her arrival, she first completed a re-envisioning of RDA’s branding, programming, and audience engagement, including a successful transition to digital programming in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. She has also directed fundraising—hitting an all-time fundraising record with the RDA team in the organization’s 50-year history in 2019—and oversaw operations, finance, and managed its board of directors. Reflecting on her time at RDA and many collaborations across the Houston area, Nicanor said:

“Houston opened my eyes to understanding the American city in a radically different way. I will miss its complexity, as I will RDA and the colleagues and life-long friends at Rice Architecture, from whom I’ve learned so much. RDA is a truly unique organization because of the people that make it and its ability to democratize design for all. It’s been my honor to be a part of that. It will turn 50 years young later this year, and I know it has another 50 bright years ahead of asking the important questions and working alongside Houston’s AEC community in creative, unexpected, and provocative ways that match our urgent times.”

Prior to joining Rice Design Alliance, Nicanor was the inaugural director of the Norman Foster Foundation in Madrid. She has been a curator at the Design, Architecture, and Digital Department of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and between 2005 and 2013 worked at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, where she was the associate curator of Architecture and Urbanism and a curator of the BMW Guggenheim Lab project. 

About RDA

Rice Design Alliance is the public programs and outreach arm of Rice Architecture. We curate public programs, architecture tours, design competitions and publications that communicate the importance of design in our everyday lives and its ability to make our lives better. We are based at and work from the Rice Architecture school as an advocacy group that believes that multidisciplinary and research-based design can improve our cities and the way we live in them. 
RDA was established within Rice Architecture in 1972 by the school's first dean, David Crane, together with alumni and other civic-minded community members who believed that quality design thinking should be available to all in our community and that Houston’s citizens – experts and non-experts alike – should feel empowered to act and transform our city through design.

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