Renwick Gallery’s two-year renovation will craft a cutting-edge Grand Salon


2013 view of the Grand Salon gallery space inside the Renwick Gallery, home of the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s craft and decorative art program, in Washington, D.C. (Ron Blunt/Smithsonian Institution)
January 10

The Renwick Gallery, the Smithsonian museum dedicated to American craft and decorative arts, has begun a two-year major renovation on its 154-year-old building. The museum, which closed to the public last month, is pumping $30 million into its first renovation in 40 years to update the building and refurbish historic features. With the renovation, the museum is also giving a high-tech boost to its Grand Salon, indicating that the Renwick is rethinking how it presents the American craft movement.

Elizabeth Broun, director of the Renwick and the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum, says that the renovation’s purpose is to provide much-needed repairs to facilities. But the closure also caused leadership to consider optional technological updates for which they are still raising funds. Broun believes the upcoming redesign of the Grand Salon will ensure the continued relevance of one of the Smithsonian’s smallest museums, which sits across from the Old Executive Office Building on Pennsylvania Avenue. “The renovation started out with ‘Oh, everything is getting old and rusty,’ but we started thinking about our mission and what we should be doing,” Broun said.

Rethinking its mission has led the Renwick to commission major changes to its technology and visual presentation — so much so that the Grand Salon aims to become completely malleable space. The museum held an international competition for design companies and the winning concept — from the firm Applied Minds of Glendale, Calif. — uses floor-to-ceiling audiovisual screens to transform the room into a virtual black box. The demo photos on the Renwick’s Web site show the room as a Redwood forest, the National Mall and as a dark room covered in faces and masks.

“We’re calling it a ‘New Media Palette’ for art and education,” Broun said of high-resolution room. “It will allow us to invite artists to create works for us.”

The transformation of the Grand Salon may seem odd to visitors who expect an American handicraft museum to be more traditional in its presentation. But Broun says the museum staff is constantly forced to rethink the craft movement in the advent of new technology.

“We’re working with a new interpretation of what we mean by ‘craft,’ ” Broun said. “We love the program we’ve run for 40 years, but we want to try to broaden the idea of craft to incorporate the idea of ‘making.’ Craft has been dominated by the studio craft movement, but there is a broader universe of people who want to make things. There’s a reaction to the virtual world.”

The museum has long been the center of change and transformation. The structure was originally built in 1859 to house William Corcoran’s collection of European and American art, which outgrew the space and settled at the larger beaux-arts building down 17th Street. In 1956, Congress planned to demolish the Renwick until a group of concerned citizens, and later Jacqueline Kennedy, stepped in to save it. The Smithsonian inherited it in 1965, renovating it a few years later.

Broun says the museum is on track with its fundraising. Half of the $30 million will come from private funds, and the Renwick has already raised $10 million from private donors.

However, the building cannot change drastically. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1971, so the facade or the historic features will remain intact, Broun said. One of the major goals of the refurbishment is to make the Renwick an all-LED-illuminated museum. Broun says LED lighting will reduce energy costs by up to 70 percent.

Katherine Boyle reports on arts, museums and culture for the Style section.
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