Carved in stone above the doors of Renwick Gallery on 17th Street, housing the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s collection of contemporary craft and decorative arts, is the inscription “Dedicated to Art.” Given that the building, conceptualized in 1858 by James Renwick to house the extensive art collection of banker William Wilson Corcoran, is the first “purpose-built” art museum in the country, such an inscription is not particularly unexpected.
The sign remains today on the gallery’s newest exhibit “WONDER,” celebrating the museum’s reopening to the public after a two-year, $30 million renovation. Though its goal has not changed for the most part, the inscription now includes a certain edit — the words “the Future of” — scrawled in red above it the stone.
“It really underpins the new, re-imagined, re-envisioned Renwick Gallery,” Smithsonian Museum Director Elizabeth Broun said of the gallery’s update.
The Renwick’s renovation replaced the building’s lighting and air conditioning, restored its original indoor and outdoor embellishments and revealed the second floor’s previously covered vaulted ceilings. “WONDER,” consisting of nine architectural installations by contemporary artists, was therefore organized by the gallery’s Curator-in-Charge Nicholas R. Bell, with an unconventional purpose, namely to capture and utilize the gallery’s physical space and renovation as an art in itself.
“I started forming a list of artists, in organizing the exhibit, who I knew to be comfortable and conscious of space and how to use it,” Bell said. “What we’re aiming to capture is that completely physiological feeling of awe, the kind that children have when they see the world. To be honest, children are probably going to have the most fun at this show.”
The works that comprise “WONDER,” which range from 15-foot nests made of birch saplings to LED light displays to multicolor thread weavings, inhabit the gallery, not just in a literal sense but conceptually as well. Many of them, though displayed in a museum of craft art, are made possible through the use of computer graphics.
“For the next chapter in its 156-year history, we will showcase exemplary artists like these nine who are dissolving the boundaries that once existed between craft, art and design,” Broun said, speaking on one of the installations, “1.8,” consisting of thousands of square feet of woven netting covering the ceiling of the gallery’s Bettie Rubenstein Grand Salon. “The interesting thing is that this would not be here without computer imaging. But at the same time, all of those knots are hand-tied. It symbolizes a respectful renovation of a great historic landmark building and at the same time what we’re thinking of in the 21st century.”
“WONDER” will remain free and open to the public until July 10, 2016.