The facade of the Renwick Gallery. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)
Art and architecture critic

Here’s the only thing that matters in the debate over whether or not the Smithsonian needs approval for its new signs, including an ugly, temporary addition that now defaces the facade of the recently renovated Renwick Gallery: The Smithsonian should set the gold standard for compliance with all design and preservation oversight groups in the District.

It shouldn’t make dubious and destructive claims that the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) has limited authority over things such as signage.

The Smithsonian should be a leader, setting the best possible precedents, for full participation in the complicated but essential process of working together, collaboratively and with collegiality, with groups such as the NCPC and the Commission of Fine Arts. The lawyers should back off, and the Renwick should step up and get the necessary approvals.

Both the NCPC and CFA have raised concerns about the temporary sign — a tacky lighted addition that includes the words “the future of” just above the old motto, “Dedicated to Art” — and the design of two new street-level signs. None of these were included in submissions the Smithsonian made to these agencies, and thus were placed there without proper review.

To outsiders, criticism of signage may seem like nitpicking.

The Renwick Gallery. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

But anyone who follows the work of these groups knows that getting into the weeds when it comes to small design issues is exactly what they are meant to do, and in most cases they do it well.

They will debate the color of paving stones, the metal used in railings, the placement of benches, the lighting level of lamp posts and the texts and fonts carved into marble. The CFA brings to these questions the cumulative aesthetic expertise of its members, who tend to be architects, designers, historians and people with a background in urban planning.

The NCPC is more of a planning agency, bringing together representatives of different local and federal government agencies, with collective expertise on how design impacts livability and the enjoyment of public space.

Even if the Smithsonian believes it isn’t required to submit signs for review — a truly exceptional exception derived from the legalese of its own general counsel — it should nevertheless follow the rules that bind everyone else. It is simply arrogant to believe that the Smithsonian’s design decisions can’t be improved by the input of oversight groups.

To the extent that the Smithsonian has a coherent campus of decently designed buildings on the National Mall, it should in fact thank the CFA and the NCPC. These groups implemented and protected the 1902 McMillan Plan, which laid out the National Mall as we know it today.

Indeed, the Smithsonian’s Castle building enjoys a unique place on the Mall, intruding far deeper into the greensward than other museums and federal buildings. That privilege, grandfathered into the design of the Mall, should make the Smithsonian particularly sensitive to anything that diminishes the authority and prestige of the CFA and the NCPC.

Washington has been immeasurably improved by both groups, but ultimately their power to enforce design decisions is limited to internal government appeals and cumbersome legal action. They have the authority to review and reject designs, but practical compliance is more a matter of all parties behaving honorably once a decision has been reached.

The Smithsonian’s intransigence, and its dispiriting appeal to its legal office, isn’t just a matter of local design and design review; it chisels away at the customary and traditional authority of yet another institution of American cultural life — design review in the nation’s capital — which has served the American people well for a century.

What is now to stop other organizations from asserting their own private understanding of the limits of design review?

Is this a precedent that the Smithsonian, which is steward to at least eight museums dedicated to art and design, wants to set? The Smithsonian’s effort to set its own limits to design review authority should make everyone who cares about the National Mall nervous, given the institution’s ambitious plans to radically redesign and reconstruct its Independence Avenue campus (including the destruction of public gardens).

Neglecting to submit things for review will no doubt make the oversight of that project much easier, but it will disenfranchise the public from its say in the process.

The Renwick precedent, legally questionable and civically ungenerous, should alarm everyone who cares about historic preservation, good architecture and well-
designed public spaces.

The NCPC has asked the Renwick Gallery to submit its new signs for review, and not illuminate them until the process has played out. That’s the least the Renwick should do.

There also needs to be a robust conversation about how the one above the front entrance — the breezy “Dedicated to (the future of) Art” — came to be in the first place. It isn’t simply ugly, it’s silly.

Washington has enough silly; we have enough glitz; we are full to the gunwales with institutions making broad and unsubstantiated claims about their magnificent contributions to public life.

Smithsonian American Art Museum Director Betsy Broun says the parenthetical sign is “like a party decoration,” but in fact the sign makes the “dedicated to the future of art” claim a grammatical afterthought. It also syntactically mimics the failure of the Renwick to get approval for the sign.

The American Art Museum, of which the Renwick Gallery is a part, needs some serious introspection. It is one of the duller franchises among the Smithsonian’s museums, too devoted to cheap and content-free exhibitions .

Sexy new signs won’t change anything. If the Renwick is indeed committed to the future of art, that will become manifest inside its galleries, not on its facade.