I am taking classes with the University of Texas – Arlington (UTA) to finish my bachelor’s in the science of nursing (BSN). I have just nine classes left – woo hoo! And will be finished by the end of the year. One of those classes was art appreciation and the final paper was to visit a gallery to see an original piece of art. I looked up a few exhibits at various museums (there are so many to choose from!) and decided on the Renwick Gallery’s Wonder exhibit. I had heard it was good for kids. So I packed my two year old daughter into her stroller along with a bunch of snacks and set out on the Metro for downtown DC.
In my opinion, the Metro is the only way to travel into the city for tourist activities as parking can cost up to $50 per day. We exited the Metro at the McPherson Square stop and walked toward the White House. The Renwick Gallery is located on the corner of Pennsylvania Ave and 17th Street, NW. It’s main entrance is on Pennsylvania Ave facing the Eisenhower Executive Building and White House, and is next to the Blair House for those familiar with the area. All of that is right next to Lafayette Park which makes a great spot for a snack. The squirrels are friendly, the protesters fairly quiet and calm. One should expect the occasional motor-cade when traveling near the White House but I certainly can’t tell you when.
The Renwick Gallery is part of the Smithsonian and is the home of the contemporary craft and decorative art by American artists. The Wonder exhibit is the first of what I hope will be many years of amazing installation art since the museum’s latest extensive renovation project. The Renwick Gallery building is a National Historic Landmark as it is “the first built expressly as an art museum in the United States, and is named in honor of its architect, James Renwick, Jr” according to the Renwick web site.
Built in 1859, to house the art collection of William Wilson Corcoran, the building was dubbed “The American Louvre” and was indeed inspired by the Louvre in Paris, France. Other buildings of note by Renwick include the Smithsonian’s Castle in Washington, D.C. and St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City but the Renwick Gallery is the first of any building in the United States built expressly to house and display art. “Dedicated to Art” was inscribed in stone above the front entrance.
The building was not to stay in museum occupancy though. In 1899, the U.S. Court of Claims took over the building after the Corcoran collection was relocated to a larger building. The Renwick was poorly maintained until the 1950’s when it was proposed that the building could be demolished to make way for larger government buildings. With the help and great influence of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, a campaign was kicked of in 1962 to renovate and preserve the Renwick building. It may look like a Victorian horror, but it is really quite a lovely and precious example of the period of architecture which is fast disappearing. I so strongly feel that the White House should give the example in preserving our nation’s past” she wrote in one of her many letters regarding the Renwick building. In 1965 it was turned over to the Smithsonian, and in 1972 opened “as the home of the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s contemporary craft program” (Renwick Gallery).
In 1969, the Renwick housed the very first collection of what is now the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Objects USA exhibition. It was Lloyd Herman, the Smithsonian director who proposed that the Renwick be dedicated to American craft. In 2013 the museum closed for massive renovations. It re-opened in 2015 after a two year $30 million renovation, worth every penny in my opinion. The Renwick Gallery chose to open with the Wonder exhibition featuring nine contemporary American artists.
The Renwick Gallery is the perfect size for a day-trip to the museum with your little ones. It’s not so large as to be overwhelming, but allows the viewers to wander from room to room. It is easily accessible by wheelchair or with strollers (which are not permitted on weekends, strollers that is). The entrance for those on wheels is on the 17th Street side of the building down a ramp to the basement. There is a bathroom with changing table at that door and I found the elevators to be large enough for my stroller and very easily accessible. Navigating the installation art was a little tricky but totally do-able.
The Wonder exhibition pieces are truly wondrous! These installation pieces envelope the viewer and engage the heart as well as the eye. There are three rooms especially conducive
to children. I did not feel comfortable allowing my two year old to roam freely as these are whole room installation art pieces and I could not keep her from touching things easily. The bright colors caught her eye and we talked about how each room was different from the last as we walked through. This is not an interactive museum for children as some of the more popular Smithsonian museums but I found it to be engaging and just the right size for a two year old. We were able to see everything and truly enjoy it in a little over an hour which was about all the time I could keep her from touching everything. The next time I might wear her in my baby carrier and leave the stroller parked in the basement with the guard.
Thank goodness the demolition plans for the Renwick building were stopped. This is a spectacular building and is a treasure I’m so very fortunate to have visited. Today, the Renwick Gallery boasts nearly 2,000 objects of American craft. I am excited to see more of what is in store as exhibitions will be changing this summer, 2016. But don’t miss the Wonder exhibition, it is amazing! I truly enjoyed it and you will as well. If you can’t visit the museum in person check out their web site and especially these videos on the Wonder exhibition pieces: http://renwick.americanart.si.edu/videos And even if you are visiting, watch the videos, you’ll appreciate the art so much more in my opinion!
Information gathered from the Renwick Gallery web site: http://renwick.americanart.si.edu/