With the opening of the International Spy Museum, Washington finally got a tourist attraction devoted to what at times seems to be the chief local industry. That, however, was not my favorite addition to the museum scene. A little further downtown, the National Gallery of Art would unveil its own museum within a museum, the sparkling new West Building Sculpture Galleries.
Bridging the gap between the traditional and the contemporary, the Corcoran Gallery of Art's brand-new biennial, "Fantasy Underfoot," nicely segues from paintings (albeit ones that hang like bath towels from aluminum rods) to multimedia, with a broad array of art that has, in its desire to amaze, the most ancient roots as well as the most newfangled technological underpinnings.
1. The 47th Corcoran Biennial: "Fantasy Underfoot." You may not love everything in this survey of contemporary painting (expanded two years ago to embrace installation, photography, drawing, video and sculpture and the digital arts), but I guarantee you won't easily forget "The Paradise Institute." The virtual-unreality experience utilizes uncannily lifelike 3-D audio to create, in a 16-seat plywood mini-theater the size of a small trailer, the experience of sitting in a 400-seat movie house . . . in your wildest dreams. Through March 10.
2. The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. I know, I know. It's a museum, not a show, but the Hirshhorn doesn't make it easy for critics assembling lists when, all in the course of a single year, it mounts such stellar exhibitions as "Directions: Ron Mueck," "H.C. Westerman" and the current "Zero to Infinity: Arte Povera 1962-1972," on view through Jan. 20. Even its misfires are interesting.
3. "High on Life: Transcending Addiction." Don't let the "Up With People"-style title fool you. Sure, a lot of the work at Baltimore's American Visionary Art Museum pushes the idea of art as a surrogate for drugs and alcohol, but just as much of it celebrates the endorphin rush that comes from a laundry list of no-nos. The show may not be pretty, but it's honest. Jackson Pollock wasn't exactly clean and sober either. Through Sept. 1.
4. The National Gallery of Art's West Building Sculpture Galleries. Another gorgeous museum opened this year in Washington . . . within the walls of an old one. The newly renovated (and, in some cases, just plain new) 24,000-square-foot complex of galleries devoted to the National Gallery's sculpture collection provides at long last a sterling setting for its statuary gems, including a world-class assortment of sculpture by Edgar Degas.
5. "Me, Myself and Infrastructure: Private Lives and Public Works in America." You think it's easy to make an exhibition about civil engineering that's both smart and good-looking? Well, Chicken&Egg Public Projects Inc. did it. The group, whose stated goal is the advancement of public engagement with cultural and social issues through a marriage of intelligent content and good design, created an exhibition at the National Building Museum that makes civil engineering seem sexy. Through Feb. 2.
6. "here is new york: a democracy of photographs." In the august setting of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, this exhibition of mostly amateur photographs of Sept. 11, 2001, and its aftermath probably didn't have the same impact as when it was originally shown in a SoHo storefront. But crammed floor to ceiling, and strung overhead like drying laundry, the thousands upon thousands of images had a profound and visceral impact.
7. "Technology as Catalyst: Textile Artists on the Cutting Edge." Punning double meaning aside, it isn't often you'll find the name of the Textile Museum and the phrase "cutting edge" in the same sentence, but a little contemporary art show that just happened to be about fiber artists who use digital media was one of the nicest surprises this past spring.
8. Dan Steinhilber. It was a very good year for local mixed-media installation artist Dan Steinhilber, who often makes art -- literally -- out of thin air (just add rubber balloons or plastic trash bags). He finished grad school at American University and had a series of exciting shows around Baltimore and Washington, even making it as far as Miami Beach earlier this month for Artpoint, a spinoff of the much-ballyhooed Art Basel International Art Fair.
9. "Madeleine Keesing: Meditations." Lest we forget painting, Madeleine Keesing's Crisco-thick color-field abstractions at the Corcoran Gallery of Art reminded us of the one-two punch of pigment and texture to open doors of perception.
10. "Willem de Kooning: Tracing the Figure." What can I say? I really like painting. The evolution of de Kooning's figural abstraction -- and the debt owed him by such painters as Cecily Brown -- is on clear view at the National Gallery of Art. Through Jan. 5.