Renwick Reopens, Seeks “Wonder”

Renwick Reopens, Seeks “Wonder”

Jennifer Angus, In the Midnight Garden

Jennifer Angus, In the Midnight Garden, 2015, Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Photo: Ron Blunt

The Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery reopens today after roughly two years of renovation, marking the third time in three centuries (1874, 1972, and now, 2015) that the building has opened as an art museum. The building was seized by the Union Army for use as a warehouse and headquarters during the Civil War, served as a federal courthouse for roughly 60 years, and was nearly demolished during the JFK presidency to make room for more modern office buildings, only saved by a passionate letter from first lady Jackie Kennedy. In fact, the Renwick (since 1965 owned by the Smithsonian) was the first building in the United States specifically to serve as an art museum. So when its latest exhibition “Wonder” opens November 13, the Renwick will be both the oldest and the newest art museum in the U.S.

Why “Wonder” and why now? Nicholas Bell, the Fleur and Charles Bresler curator-in-charge, says the impetus comes from a reexamination of why museums like the Renwick exist.

“What are museums for? My answer was that we need places as a people and as a public where we can come together and experience wonder,” he says. That made him realize: “The building itself is our most precious and valuable object.”

So rather than fill the museum again with objects from its collection – albeit a wonderful collection – the Renwick itself is the object, with the help of nine artists. Jennifer Angus, Chakaia Booker, Gabriel Dawe, Tara Donovan, Patrick Dougherty, Janet Echelman, John Grade, Maya Lin, and Leo Villareal all take distinct approaches to their installations – rubber tires, LED lights, and even insects are featured materials in the building’s transformation. 

“They are people who really want to overpower you with their artwork,” says Bell. “We are celebrating the idea that these buildings need to exist so that you can come to a place like this and experience this emotion, this feeling, whatever wonder is.”

Clearly, the spirit of the Renwick’s founder William Wilson Corcoran remains intact. Corcoran opened it, in his words, as an act of “encouraging American genius.” Just as the White House across the street serves as a symbol of America’s most powerful political seat, the Renwick was intended to stand as a symbol of the value we place on American and culture.

“I just want to stand at the door and watch people’s faces when they walk in and look at how much their museum has changed,” says Bell. “When they can see just how much love and effort has gone into making this place look as best as it can for the next 50 years.”