The Renwick Gallery is the city’s go-to venue for lovers of American decorative arts, traditional and modern crafts, and architectural design. Reopened in November 2015 after a 2-year renovation, the Renwick’s inaugural exhibit, Wonder, attracted lines out the door for months, as word spread about the brilliantly innovative, immersive, room-size installations created by nine major contemporary artists. Two of the nine pieces remain on display indefinitely: that of Leo Villareal, whose work, Volume, flashes 23,000 LEDs in endless variations above the Grand Staircase; and that of Janet Echelman, 1.8, in which a colorful handwoven net hangs suspended over the expanse of the Grand Salon, replicating the surge of energy that was released across the Pacific Ocean during the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.
Also ongoing is an exhibit of 80 objects from the permanent collection; some are old favorites, such as Wendell Castle’s Ghost Clock, and others are new acquisitions, such as Marie Watt’s Edson’s Flag, but all celebrate contemporary craft. An exhibit in the elegant Octagon Room uses photographs, documents, and art objects to chronicle the history of the building.
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. The recent renovation restored the original 19th-century window configurations, and turned up some surprises, like the 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 just down the street, in 1874.