"Dedicated to American Craft" state the banners draped along the facade of the Renwick Gallery, a branch of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. But leave at home any antiquated notions you may have about quilts, pottery and woodworking: Crafts here are high art, not everyday objects. (Try the National Museum of American History to see more down-home craftwork).
The Renwick's refurbished galleries on the second floor rotate pieces from the permanent collection. Works are offbeat and playful, yet somehow straightforward: Larry Fuente formed his splendid "Game Fish" from a mounted sailfish and game accessories -- dice, poker chips, domino tiles, Scrabble letters, yo-yos, badminton shuttlecocks and Ping-Pong balls; Wendell Castle's allusive "Ghost Clock" cloaks time with trompe l'oeil. On the other hand, plenty of artifacts reflect the craft-is-capital-A-art stance: Arline Fisch's silver "Body Ornament" is a necklace only a mannequin could wear; Dale Chihuly's famous glass globules seem to float in their sandbox sanctuaries -- their purpose is aesthetic and contemplative, not practical. At the Renwick, that's enough.
The first-floor gallery features temporary exhibits that usually rotate about twice a year. Recent shows include "USA Clay," a design biennial and the furniture of Sam Maloof.
Not all of the Renwick is devoted to examining craft. The building's central staircase leads up to the Grand Salon, an enormous Victorian period room hung with paintings from the Smithsonian American Art Museum's permanent collection.
The Renwick actually began its life as the Corcoran Gallery of Art. In the 1850s, William Wilson Corcoran, a wealthy Washington merchant, was looking for a suitable spot to build a home for his art collection. Corcoran liked the view from 17th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, across from the White House and the Old Executive Office Building. After Corcoran moved his collection down the street to its current location, the Renwick was vacant for some time before serving as a branch of the U.S. Court of Claims for nearly 60 years. In 1972, the building designed by architect James Renwick, who also designed the Smithsonian "Castle," opened as the Renwick Gallery.
-- William Yardley
In some respects, this is not an easy place for children to deal with. Crafts tend to be utilitarian objects that become art by virtue of the extra skill and imagination that have gone into creating them. But it's hard to explain to smaller children why they're not allowed to touch the rug or the chair or the desk or some other object. There is some whimsy here, most notably "Game Fish," "A Little Torcher," a stained-glass creation depicting pyromania (okay, maybe not so whimsical, but kids' eyes open wide when they see it); and the trompe l'oeil tour de force "Ghost Clock," a seemingly shroud-covered grandfather clock carved entirely out of wood.
-- by John Kelly and Craig Stoltz
Words to the wise: If the crafts don't do it for your children, climb the imposing stairway to the Grand Salon. Once the most famous art-filled room in Washington, it is still hung with 18th and 19th Century paintings, one atop the other, as was the style in those days.
Food: There is no food at the gallery itself, but if you walk up 17th Street you will find a number of eating choices.
Nearby: The White House, Lafayette Square, Corcoran Gallery of Art and the Interior Department Museum.