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Acclaimed art scholar, ex-RISD president Roger Mandle dies

‘My mission, my vision, is to contribute to our humanity and quality of life and to make Providence and the Rhode Island School of Design a globally recognized center of art, design and right-brained thinking,’ he once said.

Former RISD president Roger Mandle.
Former RISD president Roger Mandle.Brent LeStage/Brent LeStage photo courtesy of the Mandle Family

PROVIDENCE — Roger Mandle, an internationally renowned art scholar who expanded the footprint and extended the reputation of the Rhode Island School of Design, died Saturday in Dartmouth. He was 79.

Mr. Mandle, who served at president of RISD from 1993 to 2008, died after a long battle with cancer, according to a statement from the school.

A painter, sculptor, and photographer, Mr. Mandle was credited with helping modernize the school, one of America’s most prestigious four-year art colleges, and quadrupling its endowment to over $400 million.

”My mission, my vision, is to contribute to our humanity and quality of life and to make Providence and the Rhode Island School of Design a globally recognized center of art, design, and right-brained thinking,” he said.

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He oversaw completion of a $115 million capital campaign in 2007. As part of that effort, the architecturally acclaimed Fleet banking hall was transformed into a campus library and dorms for 500 students, called the Roger Mandle Center for Living and Learning. With his leadership, the school also built the Chace Center, which houses a Museum of Art, a lecture hall, and a set of teaching and social areas.

He also helped to establish the Brown University-RISD Dual Degree Program and new departments of Furniture Design and Digital + Media.

”The American arts and higher education communities have lost a giant,’' Representative David Cicilline, Democrat of Rhode Island, said in a statement, calling Mr. Mandle “an extraordinary man and a great civic leader.”

Mr. Mandle and his wife, Gayle Wells Mandle, an abstract painter and acclaimed mixed media artist, were known for opening their home in Providence to students and faculties for parties and gatherings. They turned one of the rooms, a 10-by-10 foot anteroom on the first floor, into their “guest book,” complete with colored markers and encouragement to write personal notes and sign the white walls, doors, window frames, or ceiling.

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“His influence on generations of artists and others whose lives were made better through the arts will live on,” RISD president Rosanne Somerson said in a statement.

Airbnb cofounder Joe Gebbia, a RISD alumnus, tweeted that Mr. Mandle “was an early supporter of my entrepreneurial pursuits on campus.”

More recently, Mr. Mandle and his wife were driving forces behind the creation of the Design Art Technology Massachusetts, or DATMA. The museum-without-walls seeks to explore the dynamics between art-design and technology. It also works to tie New Bedford’s history to local industry.

Last year, DATMA held a citywide exploration of wind and art, titled “Summer Winds.’' Among the exhibits was an installation that harnessed the wind to create kinetic art from recycled candy wrappers. This year’s theme was light.

“My wife and I thought wouldn’t it be exciting to start a museum in New Bedford,” Mr. Mandle told the Globe last year. “What about creating an international facility, non-collecting, with connections with universities, schools, and public programs?”

Before arriving in Providence, Mr. Mandle had served as the director of the Toledo Museum of Art and deputy director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. A graduate of William College, he began his career as a teaching fellow at Phillips Andover Academy in Andover.

As a former member of the National Council on the Arts appointed by former Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, Mr. Mandle helped shape and guide US art and design policy.

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From 2008 to 2012, he was executive director of the Qatar Museums Authority, overseeing the opening of a Smithsonian-style suite of museums.

Later, he launched a consulting firm dedicated to assisting museums and universities in strategic planning, board and senior staff development and mentoring, and advice during important transitions.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Mandle leaves a son, Luke; a daughter Julia; a sister, Julia Kiechel; and five grandchildren.

”Roger Mandle was a gardener, a passion tethered to his core belief in optimism. He loved sowing seeds and nurturing them into their full glory,” his family said in a statement. “Gardening is a fine metaphor for his life’s philosophy of lovingly nurturing and mentoring all of those around him to reach for their highest potential.”

Material from the Associated Press was used in this obituary.