Guide To The Renwick Gallery In Washington D.C.

The Renwick Gallery is a Smithsonian museum dedicated to contemporary fine crafts and decorative art. It’s a branch of the National Museum of American Art, which is housed in another building.

It’s a lovely underrated space where you can escape the crowds at other Smithsonian museums. The museum is known for its forward-thinking exhibits. Immersive exhibits are its main work.

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The gallery is housed in an ornate brick building that was the first American building constructed as a public art museum.

The Second Empire style building was intended to house the the collection of William W. Corcoran. It was designed by James Renwick Jr., the architect who built the Smithsonian “Castle.”

During 2013-15, the Renwick Gallery received a much needed $30 million high tech renovation.

grand staircase with red carpet in the Renwick Gallery
grand staircase

The Renwick also recently closed for several months in 2022 to install works for its current 50th anniversary celebration, This Present Moment.

Guide To The Renwick Gallery: What To See

The Renwick’s permanent collection is typically displayed via special exhibitions like this one. So, not all of the permanent collection is shown at one time. You can check the museum website to see whether a particular piece is on view.

Highlights of the permanent collection include Nick Cave’s Soundsuit; Wendell Castle’s Ghost Clock; Karen LaMonte’s Reclining Dress Impression with Drapery, Debra Baxter’s Devil Horns Crystal Brass Knuckles (Lefty), Albert Paley’s Portal Gates, and Lenore Tawney’s Box of Falling Stars.

Leo Villareal, Volume (Renwick) @ Ty Cole

The current anniversary exhibition is the culmination of an aggressive buying campaign. The museum purchased more than 200 works by American artists from diverse backgrounds for its permanent collection.

The exhibit shows off these recent acquisitions and demonstrates the dynamic landscape of American craft today.

Its focus is artist activism and how crafts can make the world a better place. Many exhibits are about nature, the environment, and history.

There’s an impressive 170+ works spread out in each room of the two story museum. You’ll find a range of craft mediums from fiber, wood, ceramics, glass, mixed media, and glass.

Dale Chihuly chandelier in the Octagon Room
Dale Chihuly, Seafoam and Amber-Tipped Chandelier, 1994

As you ascend the grand staircase, you’ll see an impressive dangling light sculpture by Leo Villareal (shown above).

It was one of nine works created for the Renwick’s 2015 show Wonder. The Renwick purchased the piece for its permanent collection.

The dazzling installation uses LEDS embedded in 320 mirrored stainless steel rods. 23,000 point of lights shine according to an algorithm that Villareal created.

In a room at the top of the staircase, you’ll come across another spectacular sculpture. It’s a glass chandelier created by pioneering glass artist Dale Chihuly.

He also has one of his series of Nijima Floats on display. At the time, the Floats were among the largest glass orbs ever made by inflating molten
glass with just the artist’s breath.

Chihuly, Nijama Floats series, 1991-92
Chihuly, Nijama Floats series, 1991-92

The museum’s showstopper is Janet Echelman’s installation, 1.8 Renwick. It’s suspended from the vaulted ceiling of the Grand Salon.

It’s a colorful fiber and lighting piece that’s a meditation on time. The color changes and permeates based on the time it takes to watch a sunset.

The piece was inspired by a 2011 tsunami that ripped through Japan. The lines on the carpet below trace the dimensions of the installation.

You can take a seat on a bench to admire the contemplative piece. You can also walk across the carpet and stand directly under it.

Toshiko Takaezu, The Egg sculptural group
Toshiko Takaezu, The Egg group

As you go through the 50th anniversary exhibits, you’ll see crafts reflecting on the present, sharing untold stories, and reframing histories.

One large sculptural grouping is called The Egg. It’s by Toshiko Takaezu. The ceramic “eggs” are known as her “closed forms.”

The interior cavities suggest the protected space of an egg. Like “chattering eggs in a nest,” the forms suggest the safety and warm heartedness of home.

The six eggs in this grouping are: Cobalt Blue (1990s), Full Moon(1978), Zeus (2000), Sophia (2002), and Anagama (1980s)

Lisa Butler, Don't Tread on Me, God Damn Let's Go, 2021
Lisa Butler, Don’t Tread on Me, God Damn, Let’s Go, 2021

Another artist, Bisa Butler, explores the lives and histories of African Americans through her massive brightly colored portrait quilts. She depicts both famous and forgotten figures.

This quilt shows nine members of the 369th Infantry Regiment known as the Harlem Hellfighters, a segregated unit of the AmericanExpeditionary Force in World War I.

The protectors, she says, cannot be erased. They will always triumph over tyranny.

Another piece I liked was Judith Schaechter’s The Birth of Eve. It’s a beautiful stained glass piece. The flowers below her represent an alternative version of the creation story, one in which Eve is welcomed in the Garden of Eden.

Another stunning piece was Karen LaMonte’s Vestige (Pleated Dress). You look at the translucent glass sculpture and wonder who she is.

The sculpture was very labor intensive. It took LaMonte 8 months before she was able to cast each piece with their delicate folds.

Nick Cave’s Soundsuit was also beautiful and interesting. Caves is a fiber artist inspired by African dance. The “suit” or “shield” is heavily ornamented and intended to disguise a person’s appearance.

Nick Caves, Soundsuit, 2010
Nick Caves, Soundsuit, 2010
Lisa Holt, Untitled Pot, 2021
Lisa Holt, Untitled Pot, 2021

Practical Guide To The Renwick Gallery

Here are some tips and must know information for visiting the Renwick Gallery.

Address: Pennsylvania Avenue at 17th Street N.W. 

Hours: Open daily from 10:00 am to 5:30 pm

Metro: Farragut West (Blue, Orange, and Silver lines) and Farragut North (Red line)

How Long To Visit: The Renwick Gallery is small and compact. You’ll only need 1 to 1.5 hours to visit. I you live in DC, it would make the perfect lunch break.

Tours: the Renwick gives a free highlights tour that starts at the Welcome Desk at 1:00 pm.

Arthur Espenet, Staircase, 1969
Arthur Espenet, Staircase, 1969

Gift Shop: The gift shop offers art supplies, books, handicrafts, ornate jewelry, and unique decorative bowls.

Is the Renwick Gallery Worth Visiting?

For myself, I really enjoyed my visit. The museum is unique among the Smithsonians.

The exhibits were beautifully crafted, thought provoking, and so modern. It was a welcome break from the traditional art that I usually consume. Very innovative.

The Renwick is also close to the White House and National Mall. And it pairs well with its sister museum, the Museum of American Art, and the National Portrait Gallery that’s in the same building.

Marilyn Pappas, Nike with a Broken Wing, 2002-08
Marilyn Pappas, Nike with a Broken Wing, 2002-08

I hope you’ve enjoyed my guide to the Renwick Gallery. You may enjoy these other DC travel guides and resources:

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