The Renwick Gallery was originally built as the Corcoran Gallery in 1859, funded by banker William Wilson Corcoran and designed by James Renwick Jr, who also designed St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York and the Smithsonian Institution Building in Washington D.C., among many others. The Renwick Building took 15 years to complete and was the be the first art museum in Washington D.C., known as “the American Louvre”. Part of the reason it took so long to open was that the Civil War began and it was seized and used as a warehouse for records and uniforms, and later as a headquarters.
Just 23 years after the 1874 opening, the collection became too large for the building and was moved to another space. The Renwick Gallery building became a Court of Claims, and when they also outgrew it in the 1950s, it was slated to be demolished until Jacqueline Kennedy saved it and President Lyndon Johnson gave the building to the Smithsonian to be used as a gallery. Is has been used for this purpose since then, aside from a closure in 2013-2015 for renovations after the building was damaged by the 2013 earthquake in Washington D.C.
Located across the street from the Eisenhower Executive Office Building and a block away from Lafayette Square and the White House, the Renwick Gallery is an easy and fun stop for visitors at those attractions, and like other Smithsonian museums, entrance is free. Guests who make their way up the grand staircase to the exhibit space will be greeted by an LED chandelier by Leo Villareal, whose career with LED displays began at the Burning Man festival.
On our visit, there were other displays centered around Burning Man, including one on the history of the festival, and another entitled Temple by David Best. Temple was a replicated display of Best’s fantastically detailed wooden structures that invites visitors to add memorials and inscriptions – at the peak of Burning Man the temple is then burned although one would assume the installation in the Renwick was just disassembled once the exhibit was over. We also were captivated by the work of Dustin Farnsworth, who creates sculptures that include suffering figures adorned in headwear that resembles decaying architecture. Inspired by Farnsworth’s youth in Lansing, Michigan, the representation of the psychological toll of living amid urban decay was unsurprisingly my favorite exhibit. We also spent quite a bit of time in the HYBYCOZO exhibit (short for Hyperspace Bypass Construction Zone) by Yelena Filipchuk, born in Lviv, Ukraine, and Serge Beaulieu, born in Revelstoke, Canada. HYBYCOZO consisted of large geometric shapes made up of detailed patterns and lit from inside, casting bewitching and beautiful shadows across the room.