What to do now in Washington D.C.

Fall for the Arts in Williamsburg, Virginia

October's artist showcases, performances and literary events deserve a spot on your calendar.
Williamsburg, Virginia Fall Arts Festival
The arts are alive and well in Williamsburg, Virginia. (©Percepture)

With the changing of the leaves and cooler temps comes Williamsburg's greatest fall brag: An Occasion For the Arts, a cornucopia of art, crafts, literary events and performing arts.

The juried event showcases the work of 21 artists from the United States, Israel and Canada. A variety of mediums are represented, including metal, sculpture, glass, fiber and ceramics. The annual show takes place from October 6-8.

Visitors have the opportunity to stroll through the tents and shops in Merchants Square to mingle with the artists, discuss their works and learn about trends in art. 

Artist at Willamsburg Fall Arts

The festival is much more than an artist showcase, however; it's also is the kickoff for the Williamsburg Book Festival, presents youth art and features more than 25 musicians and performances, such as those by the Williamsburg Symphony Orchestra and Virginia Regional Ballet. 

Williamsburg's military history comes front and center in two Alexander Hamilton-centric events on October 18 and 19: a look into his relationship with George Washington and a discussion of his famous duel with Aaron Burr.

Once these special events wind down, your fascination with the arts doesn't have to: head to the Muscarelle Museum of Art, which debuted two new exhibits in September. "Fred Eversley: 50 Years An Artist" takes a look into the engineer and kinetic artist's use of light and energy; "Building on the Legacy: African American Art from the Permanent Collection" surveys paintings, drawings and sculptures by America's most prominent African American artists.

Things to Do Right Now in Washington, D.C.

(Courtesy NCinDC/Flickr) Stroll along the National Mall and lots of other fun activities in September

Beyond politicos and power lunches, Washington, D.C. bustles with inventive fare, artsy enclaves and monumental experiences for all ages. With endless options to choose from, start here to plan the perfect outing in the nation’s capital.

"Hive": Explore the highly anticipated summer installation, made up of domed chambers. See what the buzz is all about at the National Building Museum. $16. Monday-Saturday, 10 am - 5 pm. Sundays 11 am - 5 pm. 401 F Street NW. 

The highly anticipated summer installation, "Hive", made up of domed chambers. See what the buzz is all about at the National Building Museum (Courtesy Timothy Schenck)

Through October 15

“Sharks: On Assignment with Brian Skerry": Swim with the sharks as the National Geographic Museum transforms into an interactive underwater adventure. Visitors will see the ocean through the eyes of award-winning photographer, Brian Skerry, through eye-popping images, videos and artifacts, and gain an understanding for his passion to conserve the oceans of the world. $10-$15. Daily 10 am- 6 pm. 1145 17th St NW.

 On Assignment with Brian Skerry"

September 1

Truckeroo: Head to The Bullpen at the Fairgrounds, as the Friday night food festival returns to the District. Sample top food trucks, while enjoying live music, games and family fun. Prices vary. 4:00 pm-11:00 pm. 1299 Half Street SE.  

Sample top food trucks, while enjoying live music, games and family fun at the monthly Truckeroo festival

September 2

DC VegFest: The East Coast's largest vegan celebration comes to Yards Park. Speakers, chefs and vendors tout the benefits of plant-based foods. Free entry, plus free samples. 11 AM - 6 PM. Rain or shine. 1299 Half Street SE.

The East Coast's largest vegan celebration comes to Yards Park this Saturday, from 11 AM - 6 PM (Courtesy Compassion over Killing)

National Book Festival:  More than 100 authors, illustrators and poets make their way to the Washington Convention Center. Presentations will be dedicated to kids, fiction, history, poetry, contemporary life and more.  Free entry. 801 Mt Vernon Pl NW. See details here.

100 authors, illustrators and poets make their way to the Washington Convention Center for the annual National Book Festival, Saturday, Sept. 2 (Courtesy Library of Congress)

September 5-30

Abstract Art Exhibition by Stephane Koerwyn:  Food and art worlds collide at the Sofitel Washington DC Lafayette Square. Discover Koerwyn's 17-piece art collection on aluminum metal sheets, while dining over an art inspired three-course menu by executive chef Gyo Santa at signature restaurant, iCi Urban Bistro. $45+ for lunch, $55+ for dinner. 806 15th St NW.

Discover Koerwyn's 17-piece art collection on aluminum metal sheets, while dining over an art inspired three-course menu by executive chef Gyo Santa at signature restaurant, iCi Urban Bistro, Sept 5-30

September 7-17

The DC Shorts Film Festival: With over 170 films around the world, filmmakers and fanatics gather throughout the city to mix, mingle and explore the art of short cinema. Locations and times vary. See schedule and ticket info here.

September 9

Rosslyn Jazz Festival: Music and jazz lovers come together for a day of free performances by some of the biggest names in jazz and world music. Enjoy smooth sounds with a glass of beer/wine and delicious bites from local food trucks in the heart of Rosslyn at Gateway Park. 1:00 PM - 7:00 PM. 1300 Lee Hwy. Arlington, VA. See details here.

Music and jazz lovers come together for a day of free performances by some of the biggest names in jazz and world music in the heart of Rosslyn (Courtesy Sage Communications).

September 9-10

Maryland Seafood Festival: Head to Annapolis for a weekend of delicious family fun. Enjoy delicious seafood, cooking demonstrations, kids activities, fireworks, and fun at Sandy Point State Park. Prices vary. 10 AM - 7 PM.  1100 E College Pkwy. Annapolis, MD.

September 10

Adam's Morgan Day: Washington's longest running neighborhood festival returns for a day of fun for all ages. Celebrate the neighborhood and its eclectic culture with food, dance, music and more. Free. 12 PM - 6 PM. Woodley Park NW. See details here. 

 Celebrate the neighborhood and its eclectic culture with food, dance, music and more during Adam's Morgan Day. (S Pakhrin/Flickr, Creative Commons)

Never miss a beat with this guide to the best activities and events going on around Washington, D.C.

How to Instagram D.C. Like a Nat Geo Photographer

Washington Monument
www.danwestergren.com) For a fresh take on the Washington Monument, try photographing people interacting with the iconic site.

Even though the spring cherry blossoms around the Tidal Basin may arguably be D.C.’s most iconic scene, National Geographic photographer Daniel Westergren isn’t a fan.

“It’s very beautiful, but quite a circus with people and photographers everywhere,” he said.

Instead, Westergren heads to the Lincoln Memorial at sunrise any other time of the year for the type of memorable shot that has attracted almost 23,000 followers—and counting—to his Instagram feed (@danwestergren).

“First the sky turns blue, then the rising sun sends a ray of orange light into the memorial, making rectangles on the wall behind Abe Lincoln’s statue,” he said. “It only lasts for a few minutes, but it’s quite something to see, and adds color to the photos.”

Look for Good Light and New Angles

The longtime photo director for National Geographic Traveler magazine, Westergren now works as a freelance photographer and photo workshop leader. He said one of the most common mistakes people make when shooting in D.C. —as in other places—is not understanding the importance of good light.

“If you’re willing to get up early, or be out taking pictures when most people are eating dinner, you’ll find never-ending great photo ops.”

Lincoln Memorial

Another main challenge for shutterbugs is creating fresh images of Washington’s well-known monuments and memorials.

“They are so good-looking that most photographers just stand in front of them and take a picture,” said Westergren.

“That’s a good start, but to really utilize them, use the sites as a background and photograph people interacting with them, your family or just random strangers. I always joke with D.C. workshop participants that if I want a picture of the Lincoln Memorial, I can just pull a penny out of my pocket. So do something to make your photo your own.”

Also a National Geographic Traveler photographer and workshop leader, Krista Rossow—33.9k Instagram followers, @kristarossow—suggests looking “for angles and situations that are unusual. Instead of a straight-on shot of the Washington Monument, maybe photograph its reflection in the Vietnam Veterans Memorial or shoot through all the flags at its base.”

Wait for It

Great snaps also require patience to see what events unfold around you, from parades to protests.

“You never know what activity will be happening on the National Mall,” Rossow said. “Some weekends there will be veterans who are visiting the World War II Memorial for the first time, and seeing people walk up and thank these men and women for their service can turn into powerful photographs. Other times there will be people crawling backwards up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial doing intense physical training courses. And if you hang around long enough, you’ll usually see a wedding proposal!”

Westergren likes how on most Saturday mornings there are crews scrubbing the wall of the Vietnam memorial.

“It really brings the importance of this site into perspective,” he said.

Go Off the Beaten Path

Once you’ve Instagrammed from the main D.C. landmarks, it’s time to head to less touristy places. Rossow suggests exploring different neighborhoods to see what they turn up: the brick townhouses of Georgetown, the bustling stalls of Eastern Market, the street art of Shaw.

“In the daytime, I love photographing riders coming out of the Metro at the north Dupont Circle station,” she said, “and at twilight, I like to play with long exposures to get the traffic around Dupont Circle to turn into colorful blurs.”

Eastern Market

Westergren recommends going even farther afield.

“Head up the Potomac River a few miles to Great Falls. It’s an amazing site very close to the capital city. It’s probably best photographed from the Virginia side, because you can get closer to the water.”

Then, Snap Away

Ultimately, both photographers agree that Washington is simply super photogenic, period.

“The reason I like photographing in D.C. is the same as the reason I liked living in D.C.,” said Rossow, who moved away four years ago but returns often. “There is so much to see and do. D.C. has it all: the iconic memorials and buildings, off-the-beaten-track gems, vibrant neighborhoods, diverse architecture and lush green spaces.”

Memorial Bridge

And it’s a city that can even win over skeptics. After years of avoiding the cherry blossom madness, Westergren found himself turning into a petal promoter when he agreed to create a portrait of a friend among the blooms. That led to another friend commissioning a portrait there, too. Then the following day, Westergren conducted a live video photo workshop for Nat Geo Travel from the Tidal Basin.

“So basically I visited the Tidal Basin at 5:30 am three times in four days.”

For more inspiration, visit the National Geographic Museum and see upcoming D.C. photo workshops here.

Wow your social media followers with these tips from the image-savvy pros.

Fun Activities With Kids in D.C.

Local tykes Evie and Alex at Mount Vernon
(©Gary Cohen) Local tykes Evie and Alex at Mount Vernon

“Please, I need you to count the bathrooms.” With those words, a colonial guard assigns my grandchildren a task as we line up to enter the house where George lived. Engaged by their mission, Alex (6) and Evie (4) stroll through an elegant parlor, peek into bedrooms, dining rooms and the first president’s library. All very grand, but, as ceramic pots by the beds soon confirm, the answer is “zero.”

So goes a visit to Mount Vernon, encountering the extremes of lives lived in 18th-century America—gentleman planter George entertaining important guests like Lafayette who brings a gift (the key to the Bastille) and wife Martha in precious jewelry ordered from Paris. But the meals are prepared, whiskey distilled and chamber pots removed by slaves. Yes, slave and slave owner co-existed here, more than 300 in bondage when founding father Washington died, and his will freed those bearing his name.

Mount Vernon addresses that era now with compassionate accounts, archaeological digs at slave family quarters and a burial ground turned respectful memorial. This Virginia property, packed with sites of interest, helps visitors see Washington as a man of his time and a hero too. It tells the necessary stories with high-tech education centers as well as with traditional hospitality. The hilltop site makes for dramatic Potomac River views and a sloping front lawn that encourages cartwheels.

July 4th means red, white and blue fireworks in the daytime (1 p.m.), a ceremony swearing in 100 new U.S. citizens and free birthday cake (while it lasts). But every day from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., expect encounters with the first president and original first lady—family portraits (by artists like Stuart and Peale), a terra cotta bust by Houdon and lifelike figures of Washington and his horse Nelson.

George, Martha and her children in bronze welcome visitors to the Ford Orientation Center featuring a one-twelfth scale, exact replica of the mansion. At the Pioneer Farm site, horses tread wheat in the 16-sided barn, mama pig and piglets play around a mud hole, and workers shear sheep that don’t seem to mind.

At the entrance to the interactive world of the Reynolds Center, visitors stop before a vision out of the Wizard of Oz—a six-foot-high, glowing white face that shifts to keep eye-to-eye contact with all who pass by. It’s George Washington, in this case, a genuine good man and truly “the great and powerful,” his life revealed within.

Allow time here for a hands-on playroom for little kids, an animated film of George’s boyhood, Martha’s dress and jewelry plus colonial era guns and swords. Highlight: a film that recounts the Revolutionary War with graphics and actors. Be warned: cannon smoke rises, “artillery fire” rumbles the theater seats, and during the hard winter at Valley Forge, “snow” floats down upon the audience.

Onsite: a food court with burgers, fries, salads and pizza to carry out to patio tables or the Mount Vernon Inn with sit-down service for American fare. Special-ticket tours include gardens, slave life, a Saturday dog walk and “National Treasure: Book of Secrets” movie locations. A shuttle runs to the wharf for Potomac Riverboat cruises, a 45-minute loop to Fort Washington and back, with good camera angles on Mount Vernon. (Mansion and grounds tickets: $17 for adults, $16 for seniors, $9 ages 6-11, free 5 and under.)

For more role-playing activities, read on.

 

Adventurers 

Check out stars like the giant pandas (24/7 on live feed) and Asian elephant Kandula, 13, whose keen intelligence solves problems. Special ticket: Elephant Trails tour of a new barn with suites, sand floor and skylights. National Zoowww.nationalzoo.si.edu, 3001 Connecticut Ave. NW, 202.673.4888

The golden “Ark of the Covenant” from the film “Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark”

“Indiana Jones and the Adventure of Archaeology”

Thanks to uber-director George Lucas and smart loans, an Archaeology 101 of derring-do film clips, actual movie props and interactive tablets that pull kids into the puzzles and realities of digging the past. Note: Harrison Ford’s battered hat, a “golden” Ark of the Covenant, ancient Egyptian manuscripts and objects from Machu Picchu. National Geographic Museum, www.nationalgeographic.com, 1145 17th St. NW, 202.857.7700

Newseum

Breaking news, tributes to heroic journalists and the impact of a free press. Pulitzer Prize-winning photos, a slab of the Berlin wall and city panorama from the balcony. Most fun: a selfie-sharing site and a YouTube posting as TV newscaster in front of sports, political, weather map, scenic screens. Up to four kids free with paying adult. Newseum, www.newseum.org, 555 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, 888.639.7386

Boomerang Pirate Ship

The red vessel at Washington Harbour cruising the river with rogues, face painting, music, limbo and a water cannon battle (get misted or stay dry). Snacks and free water plus a bar for older landlubbers. Reserve 888.217.2198 or take a chance. Boomerang Pirate Ship, www.boomerangpirateship.com, 1072 31st St. NW, 202.557.9896

IMAX

Six-story-high screens, at Air & Space Museum showing "Journey to Space 3D" about life on the International Space Station, its past and future missions, and "Hubble 3D," up-close with space-walking astronauts and treks into distant galaxies; at National Museum of Natural History showing "Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Secret Ocean 3D, Dinosaurs Alive 3D," animated creatures generated by computer, and "Mysteries of the Unseen World 3D," things too small, too fast and too slow to see. See Smithsonian’s events by day: www.si.edu/Events/CalendarSmithsonian Air & Space Museum, www.nasm.si.edu, 6th St. & Independence Ave. SW, 202.633.2214; National Museum of Natural History, www.mnh.si.edu, Constitution Ave. at 10th St. NW, 202.633.1000

Ford’s Theatre

Led by Detective McDevitt, a walking tour past sites related to Lincoln, the assassination and the Civil War. Narrated by NPS rangers: the tragic night, the Petersen House where Lincoln died and museum artifacts like John Wilkes Booth’s compass, its needle pointing south. Ford’s Theatre, www.fords.org, 511 10th St. NW, 202.347.4833

Theatergoers

Threesixty Theatre’s “Peter Pan” at Tyson’s Corner”

“Peter Pan”

The titular character and Neverland as 360-degree spectacle in a soaring tent with puppets and aerialists 40 feet above the crowd, through August 16. Threesixty Theatre, www.peterpan360.com, Tysons Corner Center, Chain Bridge Road and International Drive, 8200 Watson St., McLean, Va.

“The BFG”

Prize-winning production by Imagination Stage of Roald Dahl’s tale, following puppets and orphan Sophie on a mission to save children and visit the Queen. Ages 5+. July 14-25. The National Theatre, www.thenationaldc.org, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, 202.628.6161

“Double Trouble”

10-year-old twins Lottie and Lisa, separated by divorced parents, discovering each other at summer camp and switching places for fun and family’s sake, through August 14. Ages 5+. Imagination Stage, imaginationstage.org, 4908 Auburn Ave., Bethesda, Md., 301.280.1660

World Children’s Festival

This self-described “Olympics of the imagination” happens every four years and now, June 30 through July 4, on The Ellipse or “President’s Park” south of the White House. Selected for their talent, creativity and support of global understanding, children as visual and performing artists on the World Stage. International Child Art Foundation, www.worldchildrensfestival.org, 17th and E sts. NW, visit the website for schedule of events

Music Lovers

Friday Night Concerts

From 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., in a grassy open space near Nationals Park, bands (cover, ’90s, pop hits, indie folk rock, country) with “family-friendly lyrics.” Yards Park, www.yardspark.org, 355 Water St. SE, 202.465.7080

Kids and their parents rock out at “Tot Rock”

“Tot Rock”

In Vienna, Virginia, a daytime show with many acts for ages 2-7, including July 3, 10, 24, 31 at 10:30 a.m., Rocknoceros trio; July 25 at 11 a.m., Baby Loves Disco dance party with DJ, snacks, bubble machine; every Thursday at 10:30 a.m., comedy by The Great Zucchini, Eric “the toddler whisperer” Knaus. Jammin’ Java, www.jamminjava.com, 227 Maple Ave. E., Vienna, Va., 703.255.1566

Secret Agents

International Spy Museum

Artifacts, pop culture toys and state-of-the-art espionage plus two missions: Spy in the City, a one-hour, GPS-led walk of the neighborhood with clues and codes (ages 10+), and Operation Spy with other covert players in the back alleys of “Khandar,” seeking a stolen trigger device and evading capture (ages 12+). International Spy Museum, www.spymuseum.org, 800 F St. NW, 202.393.7798

Instructors working on the Air and Space Museum's “Eye in the Sky” Techquest project

“Eye in the Sky”

For players ages 10+ in a search for a missing aircraft and its pilots. Free, mostly self-guided with a staff briefing. July 10 and some Saturdays through summer. Air and Space Museum Udvar-Hazy Center, www.nasm.si.edu/techquest, 14390 Air and Space Museum Pkwy., Chantilly, Va., 703.572.4118

Patriots

The swooping arcs of the Air Force Memorial

Air Force Memorial

Gracing the Arlington, Virginia skyline, three arcs of stainless steel that symbolize maneuvers of flight. Special: USAF band concerts July 3, 4, 10, 17, 24 and 31 at 8 p.m., Air Force Memorialwww.airforcememorial.org, 1 Air Force Memorial Dr., Arlington, Va., 703.979.0674

National Archives

In the Rotunda, cases holding the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution; in the galleries, treasured papers like The Emancipation Proclamation, the Japanese surrender document, a 1297 Magna Carta and the Apollo 11 Flight plan. National Archives, www.archives.gov, 700 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, 202.357.5000

Shoppers

Inside the colorful Peep Store at National Harbor

Peeps & Co.

Marshmallow chicks and more (from socks and lollipops to T-shirts and golf tees) steps from the pier at Maryland’s National Harbor. Peeps & Co., www.peepsandcompany.com, 150 National Plaza, 301.749.5791

American Girl

Dolls to own, style, dress like and dine beside at Tysons Corner Center, Virginia. Special (ages 8+): July 8, cruise from Georgetown past the monuments, and July 22, brunch and bus to the Smithsonian Castle and its gardens. American Girl, www.americangirl.com, 8090L Tysons Corner Center, McLean, Va., 877.247.5223

Role playing from music lover to spy and everything in between

At the Gallery: Must-See Art Exhibitions in D.C.

"Made in Japan" by Martial Raysse, 1964, Hirshorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.
(Courtesy Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.) Martial Raysse, Made in Japan, 1964, photomechanical reproductions and wallpaper with airbrush ink, gouache, ink, tacks, peacock feathers, and plastic flies on paper mounted on fiberboard. Gift of Joseph H. Hirshhorn, 1972

George Washington envisioned the capital as a landscape of stirring vistas and classic temples beside a river. His Federal-era map allowed for the evolution of urban culture beyond politics, for public sites that honor invention and nourish the spirit. Now Washington treasure houses add to their permanent delights these fleeting wonders.

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

Icelandic performance artist Ragnar Kjartansson intrigues with tableaux of repetitive sound and movement—live happenings like a five-month floating concert at the 2013 Venice Biennale or multi-screen films like “The Visitors” that seduces with romantic music and palatial settings. His videos, some never seen in the U.S. yet inspiring international cult worship, document the artist, (in his words) a “poseur” with “fake emotions.” What seems at first a test of viewer endurance soon becomes touching comedy laced with melancholy. For the run of the exhibition, a rotating cast performs “Woman in E,” with each musician wearing sequins and playing an E-minor chord. Oct. 14-Jan. 8, 2017

Also here: digitally generated videos titled “Suspended Animation” (through March 12, 2017) and Ron Mueck’s “Big Man,” an angry, naked giant skulking in a corner (through Aug. 6, 2017).

Get there: 7th St. and Independence Ave. SW, 202.633.1000, Metro: L’Enfant Plaza

Ragnar Kjartansson's "Woman in E", Hirshorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.


National Gallery of Art/East Building

The reopening and reconfiguration of the I.M. Pei-designed East Wing help to mark the West Wing’s 75th anniversary. Installations focus on two women—Barbara Kruger, who fills the Tower with her confrontational lithographs (through Jan. 22, 2017) and L.A. gallerist/patron Virginia Dwan, who gave early attention to avant-garde artists shown in 100 works here, among them Martial Raysse’s “Made in Japan” (see top of story) (through Jan. 29, 2017). On the Roof Terrace: a 14.5-foot-tall neon blue rooster by Katharina Fritsch (ongoing).

Get there: Constitution Ave. NW between 4th & 7th sts., 202.737.4215, Metro: Archives-Navy Memorial

National Gallery of Art East Building Roof Terrace with sculptures


National Museum of African Art

“Senses of Time: Video and Film-based Works of Africa” reminds that diaspora impacts the globe. Prized artists based in Egypt, England, the Congo and South Africa show short videos: Moataz Nasr’s Arab Spring shadow portraits in water, Theo Eshetu’s kaleidoscopic vibrations that evoke intricate textiles, Sammy Baloji’s sinuous dancer moving amidst ruined copper mines to the voices of failed politicos, Bernie Searle’s Sisyphean cycle of a precipitous walk across olive oil, Sue Williamson’s multi-screen narrative by six women who fought apartheid and Yinka Shonibare’s anti-war “costume drama” with guests in African-pattern court dress at a masked ball. Through March 26, 2017

Get there: 950 Independence Ave. SW, 202.633.1000, Metro: Smithsonian

Theo Eshetu's "Brave New World I", National Museum of African Art, Washington, D.C.


National Portrait Gallery

This Smithsonian museum pays homage to influential personalities; their faces captured over centuries in paintings, sculpture and photographs. “Frozen moment” images range from daguerreotypes and Civil War-era Mathew Brady prints (through June 4, 2017) to portraits of legendary jazz musicians (through Feb. 20, 2017) and Babe Ruth (through May 21, 2017). Always here; paintings of the presidents from Washington to Barack Obama. Special: Three winners and 47 finalists for the 2016 Outwin portrait competition (through Jan. 8, 2017) and mesmerizing, slo-mo videos of illuminated figures by Bill Viola (Nov. 18-May 7, 2017).

Get there: 8th and F sts. NW, 202.633.1000, Metro: Gallery Pl.-Chinatown


Smithsonian American Art Museum

“Hot Beat” revisits the 1960s with stripe paintings by the late Gene Davis, a D.C. native son who played that single geometric shape into a dazzling variety of artworks. Opening November 18 and going through April 2, 2017, the show of 15 signature paintings anticipates his lifelong experiments with color and scale, from one-inch “micro” canvases to a 414-foot span atop a Philadelphia street.

Get there: 8th and F sts. NW, 202.633.1000, Metro: Gallery Pl.-Chinatown

"Hot Beat" painting by Gene Davis, Smithsonian Art Museum, Washington, D.C.

From performance art at Hirshhorn to a giant blue rooster at National Gallery of Art, don’t miss these shows.

Renwick Gallery’s Wondrous Refresh in D.C.

Artist Janet Echelman's ethereal Pendant installation
(©Ron Blunt) Janet Echelman, “1.8,” 2015 Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum Courtesy of Janet Echelman Inc.

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. 

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