The Renwick Gallery is out to blow your mind. Long the city’s go-to venue for lovers of American decorative arts, traditional and modern crafts, and architectural design, the museum in the past few years has morphed into a funhouse showcasing room-size installations of innovative, immersive artworks. Its 2018 show No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man, which brought stampedes of visitors, is a good example. Showcasing the large-scale artworks made for the spirited desert gathering known as Burning Man, the second floor’s 4,000-square-foot Grand Salon became a temple whose walls and ceiling were covered with small, decorative unstained wooden cutouts; visitors were invited to honor someone who’d died by writing the person’s name or a message on one of these little curlicue blocks, leaving it behind. There was an 18-foot-high naked woman made of stainless steel, a 9-foot-high dragon crafted of recycled objects, and gigantic magic mushrooms that inflated and deflated when you stepped on a green-lit circle in front of each, not to mention virtual-reality activities and dressed-up mannequins. Burning Man’s second-floor exhibits run through January 21, 2019.
The Renwick’s first-floor galleries will showcase the Renwick Invitational, highlighting the works of four artists embracing the same theme, "Disrupting Craft," in which the artists imbue their works with a "renewed sense of emotional purpose, inclusiveness, and activism."
On view in other rooms of the museum are objects from the permanent collection, such as Wendell Castle’s Ghost Clock. An exhibit in the elegant Octagon Room uses photos, documents, and art objects to chronicle the building's history.
Designed by and named for James W. Renwick, Jr., architect of the Smithsonian Castle , the Renwick was built in 1859, an example of French Second Empire–style architecture. A 2015 renovation restored the original 19th-century window configurations, and turned up some surprises, like long-concealed vaulted ceilings on the second floor. Located directly across the street from the White House, the Renwick originally was built to house the art collection of William Wilson Corcoran. The collection quickly outgrew the space, which led to the opening of the Corcoran Gallery of Art (currently closed to the public) just down the street, in 1874.