It has all the trappings of a schoolyard scuffle: One powerful federal agency, irritated that another has erected three signs without its approval, is demanding the illuminated elements be darkened until they are reviewed.
To which the sign owner has responded: You can’t make us.
You can almost hear the Bronx cheer.
The standoff between the National Capital Planning Commission and the Smithsonian Institution focuses on three red illuminated signs at the Renwick Gallery, the historic building near the White House that is home to the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s collections of craft and decorative art.
When it reopened last month following a two-year, $30 million renovation, the museum installed two free-standing signs facing 17th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW that spell Renwick in big red letters. In addition, the phrase “the future of” — also glowing red — was attached to the facade above the door, where the slogan “Dedicated to Art” is chiseled in stone. Intended to be temporary, the new phrase announces to the world that the Renwick is “dedicated to the future of art.”
Art critics writing about the Renwick’s reopening called the signs “vulgar” and “tacky” and noted the incongruity of brash signs in front of the stately mansion. But the museum’s director, Elizabeth Broun, calls the door signage “cheeky,” a party decoration for the opening that will be removed next year.
The street-level signs are part of an effort to increase visibility. “We’ve been told too often the Renwick is a hidden gem,” she said. “We want to preserve the historic structure, but you need to ensure it’s going to be a vital part of the community,” she said. The signs cost $72,000, she said.
In a strongly worded letter, NCPC Chairman L. Preston Bryant Jr. blasted the Smithsonian for not complying with federal historic preservation laws and asked for an immediate public review. He noted that the Smithsonian also failed to comply with the legally mandated reviews by the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts and the District of Columbia State Historic Preservation Office. The CFA also sent a letter to Smithsonian Secretary David Skorton seeking a do-over.
“While we may on occasion disagree about planning and design principles, the integrity of our established, legal consultation and review process itself must be respected,” Bryant wrote.
Skorton replied that the Smithsonian disputes NCPC’s authority over its signs. A similar battle occurred in 2007, after the NCPC objected to two signs associated with the Donald W. Reynolds Center, home to the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery. Smithsonian attorneys stated that the NCPC did not have a say over signage or outdoor art installations. Those signs remained intact.
“Absent a legal development that would lead us to conclude otherwise, we continue to follow” that position, Skorton wrote Monday in a letter to Bryant.
NCPC spokesman Stephen Staudigl said the panel has heard from individuals and organizations who are displeased with the new exterior of the historic landmark.
“Issues of design are particularly important given the Renwick’s location as a gateway to the White House,” Staudigl said. “It is unfortunate that they were not submitted to NCPC, because it is our belief that our review, which includes expert and public input, would have led to a better solution.”
Thomas Luebke, secretary of the fine arts commission, said that his organization regularly reviews plans for signs and other exterior elements and that his panel has also requested the Smithsonian to submit the signs for approval.
“The Smithsonian is one of the premier cultural organizations in the country, and the steward of significant historical properties, so it’s disconcerting when they sidestep federal historic preservation regulation,” Luebke said.