Renwick Gallery’s Wondrous Refresh in D.C.

The Smithsonian landmark reopens after a 2-year, $30-million renovation.

Discover WONDER only a few steps west of the White House. That’s the title and intent of a dazzling exhibition (through July 10, 2016) that reopens the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery—itself a capital marvel. After a two-year, $30 million restoration and a rethinking of curatorial mission, the elegant structure once called “the American Louvre” enters its latest incarnation.

Then & Now

In the mid-1850s, banker/philanthropist/art collector William Wilson Corcoran commissioned engineer James Renwick Jr. to design a gift to America—the nation’s first public museum devoted to art. Renwick, the architect of the Smithsonian Castle on the Mall, Oak Hill Cemetery Chapel in Georgetown and St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, eschewed the Gothic Revival style of those buildings for the fashionable Second Empire style of the Louvre pavilions he had seen in Paris.

Renwick Gallery historic exterior

This 21st-century Renwick continues the Corcoran tradition of patriotic patronage. Although federal grants covered 50 percent of the cost, new interiors have the names of private benefactors, among them lead donor David M. Rubenstein, who’s underwritten such projects as restoring the National Archives, Jefferson’s Monticello and the Washington Monument. Planners, in a nod to green practices and cutting expense, have opened rooms to more natural light and delivered a technically efficient site with the infrastructure, programs and stages that will focus on “American genius.”

Such a spirit of invention and optimism marks much of the building’s story, from citizen Corcoran’s farsightedness to the current celebration of this state-of-the-art museum. Nineteenth-century stoneworkers chiseled the words “Dedicated to Art” above the Pennsylvania Avenue entry door. Now with editorial flourish, glowing new (supposedly temporary) signage inserts itself before and above that word “Art”—“the future of.” 

Renwick Gallery exterior, post renovation

What to See

Nine living artists fill galleries with works inspired by natural processes and by the spaces themselves. Curator-in-Charge Nicholas R. Bell and his staff believe the nine embrace “hand-making in the digital age…and blur the lines between art, craft and design.”

Chakaia Booker works with a surprising material—black rubber tires. Some say her soaring constructions allude to African scarification or welts on the skin of slaves, while others read in this new 25-foot work “Anonymous Donor” a cautionary tale of environmental decay. Whatever the meaning, Booker seems absorbed by the act of weaving and turning urban “trash” into art.

Jennifer Angus has created a cabinet of wonders titled “In the Midnight Garden” by configuring flight patterns, bursting circles and skulls out of iridescent insects she finds in abundance in Southeast Asia. Mounted on dark pink walls, a color derived from cochineal insects of Mexico, her designs recall ancient crypts where the bones of priests are artfully repurposed as arches, flowers and stars.

Jennifer Angus' insect-laden exhibit against a hot pink wall at Renwick

Gabriel Dawe has transformed a narrow room into a shimmering rainbow of tightly strung thread. His 48-foot “Plexus A1” evokes the colors and sheen of embroideries from his native Mexico, suggesting a link between clothing and architectural shelter. Thin strands catch the light and render ethereal shifting patterns as a viewer moves alongside the work.

Tara Donovan has glued thousands of styrene index cards into ragged towers, creating fantastical stalagmites that allude to subterranean or imaginary landscapes. The artist, who in the past has used scotch tape and toothpicks, aims to find mystery in the mundane rather than provide a message about wasteful accumulation.

Patrick Dougherty forages for his material—flexible sticks and branches—in “forgotten corners of land where plants grow wild.” His “Shindig” of willow saplings generates cones that swirl across 90 feet of gleaming floor in one of the largest galleries. Each element is unique, since improvised once materials are in his hand.

Patrick Dougherty's nest-like installation made completely of twigs and sticks

Janet Echelman has titled her pendant, braided fiber work “1.8” (feature image above). That number refers to the 1.8 millionth of a second lost to time when the 2011 Tohuku earthquake and tsunami shifted the axis of the earth. Programmed light and “wind” movement simulate a map of the energy released by that event and remind “that what is wondrous can equally be dangerous.”

John Grade respected the Renwick’s 150 years by scouting the Cascade mountains and northern Alaska for, respectively, a massive hemlock and a balsam poplar of the same age. Working from full plaster casts of the living trees, volunteers replicated their volumes with thousands of pieces of reclaimed, old-growth western red cedar. Grade plans to return the “hemlock” to decay on the forest floor.

Maya Lin, best known for her dramatic Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall, responds to this region’s landscape with “Folding the Chesapeake.” For some decades, Lin has investigated natural wonders, but here for the first time she uses industrial glass marbles to map that threatened terrain. The material also pays homage to her father, a glass-blowing pioneer.

Artist Maya Lin with her installation "Folding the Chesapeake"

Leo Villareal took the challenge of installing a signature LED work to hover above the staircase. The result is “Volume (Renwick),” a geometric chandelier of electronic streamers, its white lights blinking in coded sequences that never repeat, thanks to an artist-written algorithm. Note: between the east and west wings of the National Gallery of Art, a Villareal LED tunnel envelops riders on a moving walkway.

Old Encounters New

A curving red carpet by French artist Odile Decq now draws visitors up the Renwick’s grand “drumroll” of a staircase. The carpet’s whimsical shape, like the contemporary art being shown here, teases the classical symmetry of the stone risers. On the second floor, the elegant Octagon Room once again holds a “Greek Slave,” not the original statue of a graceful female nude but a replica of the Hiram Powers masterwork—a full-size 3-D print of extruded nylon. By exhibiting this instead of the Smithsonian’s original plaster cast or the National Gallery’s marble, the Renwick confirms the new vision of itself—a historic site that embraces the 21st century with a sense of play as well as a sense of wonder.

Time Line

1851—Corcoran purchases one of the six full-scale, marble “Greek Slave” statues by ex-pat American Hiram Powers. Later the nude figure receives its own space in the museum, an octagonal room where separate viewing hours are set for men and genteel women.

Historic photo of Greek Slave in Octagon Room, c.1877

1859—Construction begins at the corner of 17th Street NW and Pennsylvania Avenue. Corcoran’s mansion on nearby Lafayette Square overflows with his treasures. 

1861—Workmen finish the pressed red brick exterior with its arched portals and column capitals of American ears of corn. The niches hold statues, a who’s who of history’s greatest artists including Michelangelo and Raphael. Now the 11 Carrara marble originals, in need of conservation, grace the Norfolk Botanical Gardens, and niches here hold reproductions of only the Murillo and Rubens.

With the onset of the Civil War, General Montgomery Meigs commandeers the museum for his Quarter Master Corps HQ, storing files and Union army uniform depot. For several years, like other Confederate loyalists, Corcoran lives abroad.

1869—The federal government returns the building to Corcoran who resumes construction of the interior. He establishes an endowment for acquisitions and a board of trustees for oversight.

1871—Corcoran hosts a “magnificent reception” in the Grand Salon, a fundraiser for completing the long-stalled Washington Monument. President Grant and his ruby-adorned wife join 2,000 others for an event some tout as the healing of a divided citizenry.

1874—The museum opens to the general public and enthusiastic press. The collection expands with examples of “American genius” as well as works purchased abroad. Paintings hang in rows up the Grand Salon walls painted “the color of crushed mulberries.”

Grand Salon interior, 1874-1899

1897—Nine years after Corcoran’s death, the collection moves to a more spacious building two blocks south on 17th Street, a Beaux-Arts structure designed by Ernest Flagg. (This new Corcoran Gallery of Art survives until 2014, when its holdings are absorbed by the National Gallery of Art, and its building and art school become part of George Washington U.)

1899-1964—The U.S. Court of Claims occupies the building and turns the Grand Salon into a courtroom for hearing monetary claims against the government. Fluorescent lighting, central heat and elevators provide some modernity, but the exterior deteriorates and, in World War II, the roof’s metalwork goes to the war effort. (FDR calls for faux artillery to be visible on the rooftop.)

Front of Court of Claims building, 1950s

1962—First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy leads a campaign to save the building and other historic Lafayette Square properties that planners seek to raze for high-rise federal offices. In a letter to the GSA, she insists that what some see as “a Victorian horror” is actually “a precious example of the period of architecture which is fast disappearing.”

Jacqueline Kennedy examines plans for the Renwick Gallery.

1965—Secretary of the Smithsonian S. Dillon Ripley walks President Lyndon Johnson across the street for a glimpse inside the abandoned building. Ripley and (Johnson also credits) Lady Bird convince the president that it be saved, given to the Smithsonian and turned into a gallery of art, crafts and design. Congress agrees.

1967—Mathew Brady photographs reveal the facade’s original details. A restoration company recreates the elements with molds and synthetic mixes. Architects John Carl Wernecke and Hugh Newell Jacobsen restore the interiors with faux marbling, its original palette and Gilded Age décor. 

1971—The building is designated a National Historic Landmark and named, in what may be a unique museum tribute, for its architect.

1972—Ada Louise Huxtable of the New York Times declares the project “a $2.8 million restoration miracle.” With its own curator-in-charge, scholars like (first) Lloyd Herman and (next) Michael Monroe, the Renwick mounts challenging exhibitions and, with patrons like the Renwick Alliance, acquires works in a variety of media by master craftsmen.

2015—Nov. 13, the renewed Renwick opens as an art museum for the third time, once in each of three centuries. 

Jean Lawlor Cohen
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