Re-Opening the Renwick and the Morning After
The quiet child of the Smithsonian family of museums re-opened this November with a surprisingly bold statement. The aptly named Wonder exhibit is well worth a visit for its truly impressive installation pieces. While I’m happy to have the Renwick Gallery back, this re-birthday party feels overly flashy, just a bit narcissistic, and certainly out of character for a museum dedicated to decorative arts. While an entertaining show, I am left wondering about the future of this museum and the potential for a reinvented purpose.
A Bold Return
The Renwick Gallery was constructed in the late 1850’s to house the art collection of William Wilson Corcoran. By the turn of the century, this private art museum had moved on to a larger space and so the building was used for various governmental offices. First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy saved this historic building from demolition at which point it was given to the Smithsonian American History Museum to house its American decorative arts collection. The Renwick closed in 2013 to complete two years worth of massive restorations. To give you some perspective on the pre-restoration Renwick, the last exhibit there was Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color featuring furniture and “architectural woodwork” made in antebellum North Carolina.
It seems the gallery was eager to announce its re-entry to the DC arts scene with something big! The re-opening exhibit, Wonder, features nine, room-sized works by contemporary artists. The scale of each piece creates an immersive viewing experience as one can walk around, under, and through most of them. It’s always interesting to see pieces that change or reveal fascinating nuances as you look from different angles or change your distance relative to the piece. Wonder certainly gives you plenty to explore.
I liked the use of non-traditional materials. Wonder contains branches, wooden blocks, rope, thread, tires, index cards, LED lights, glass marbles, and dried bugs. That’s one preserved shark away from a modern art bingo!
I particularly liked Janet Echelmans’s “1.8” which hung like a ghost in the upstairs grand salon. Over the course of a few minutes, colored spotlights cycle through the rainbow creating wildly different effects and shadows.
Trying Too Hard
Wonder as been wildly popular. The entry line wrapped down the block on the opening weekend so I obviously gave up on being one of the first people to see the new Renwick. Even a month later when I did get in, the museum was still packed.
The Renwick Gallery is actively promoting photography and Instagraming of the exhibit. While I get this because the pieces are very cool to explore, there is an air of “buzz creation” rather than real artistic engagement behind it all. It feels like a Millennial approach to marketing – “Our re-opening is a huge success because now we’re trending!” My suspicions have been eerily confirmed:
Sadly I get why they are doing this; I understand what the curators of the new gallery are reacting to. The Renwick use to display pottery, baskets, furniture, and textiles. While all expertly executed and exemplary pieces, these items are removed from our daily experience of Ikea furniture, plastic containers, and fast-fashion clothing. People don’t engage with cabinets and they most certainly don’t share photos of them.
That’s why the Renwick re-opened with something extravagant and radically different. Clearly they’re not a museum of rocking chairs and oil lamps anymore. (I mean, didn’t you see that there was a Maya Lin piece in Wonder?) The Renwick has people’s attention now, even if it meant straying away from their decorative arts mission.
What I’m waiting to see is whether the Renwick will truly innovate with the platform it now has, or if it remains a gallery that tries desperately to be “cool”.
Now What for the Renwick?
There’s now an out-of-place neon sign over the front door of the Renwick that progressively lights up and blinks – “Dedicated to the future of art”. The gallery has not communicated a significant change to its mission following the renovation so I’m not sure how to interpret this. It’s an enigmatic statement, but I’m optimistic that they could actually be on to something.
I recognize I’m biased, but decorative art, particularly crafts, are a beautiful and an unsung genre of art. Creativity during fabrication produces objects that transcend the ordinary and the utilitarian to become works of art in themselves. Everyone expects a painting to have meaning or at least minimally some pleasing aesthetic qualities. How magical is it then to find beauty in the mundane! That’s why I love decorative arts and graphic design.
This neon slogan has to be more of an internal mantra to challenge the Renwick curators. For decades the museum as behaved as if decorative arts were a thing of the past that just concerned with techniques of the past. But what does it mean to design and create using 3D-printing today? What does it mean to work with your hands for weeks when technology could make your efforts obsolete? What is uniqueness and originality of design when mass production can create thousands of identical objects? If the Renwick really wants to explore decorative art of the present and future, this could be a fantastic project and an impressive challenge in an age of computer aided design, human-less fabrication, and mass consumption of material goods.
One of the most enlightening exhibits I’ve ever seen was a collection of first generation technologies at the MOMA in New York City. A clock radio, a boombox, and a stand mixer were put on pedestals behind glass in an arresting flip of perspective. I would love to see the Renwick explore the interplay of form and function using the ubiquitous technology with which we’ve surrounded ourselves. Maybe instead of immediately taking selfies, we could look a little more closely at the objects in our hands.
Enjoy it for Now
By all means enjoy Wonder for the impressive collection and playground that it is. I however will be waiting to see what the Renwick Gallery does next.