All Photos: Jeff Martin

When Renwick originally opened its doors in 1859 it was tthe first building in the US designed specifically as an art museum.  In those early days, back when DC (and United States themselves) was still considered very much a cultural backwater,  it housed William Wilson Corcoran’s art collection (which comprised a great deal of American art) in order to prove that even though we were a young nation we possessed a distinct culture and character and could compete with Europe culturally, and was referred in those early days as “American Louvre”.

Several tumultuous happenings later (it was taken over by the Union Army during the Civil War, and then became the home of the US Court of Claims after Corcoran’s collection outgrew it), it was saved from demolition by Jackie Kennedy in the 60’s and became part of SAAM as its decorative arts and crafts museum and a National Historic Landmark shortly thereafter.

In 2013 it closed its doors for a major renovation intended to reflect the trailblazing nature of the space in the 21st century as well, and this Friday (after two very sold out preview galas tonight and tomorrow night) it will officially re-open its doors to 2015 audiences.

And, to say you are all in for a treat is an understatement. The renovation welcomes the visitor with a dramatic new carpet for the Grand Staircase, designed by French architect Odile Decq (a nod to the building’s French influence) in her signature red color, which leads into a new, contemporary look of public spaces are a lighter paint palette in the galleries, custom-designed furnishings for the lobby by metalsmith Marc Mairoana, LED up-lighting of the ceiling coves (including two long-concealed ceiling vaults discovered during the renovation) and gilding on decorative, originally restored moldings.

The history has not been forgotten either: the elegant, iconic “Octagon Room,” designed to house Corcoran’s favorite sculpture, Hiram Powers’ “Greek Slave,” will present a history of the building during the inaugural year.  Plus, a full-size 3-D print of the “Greek Slave,” recently made from a scan of the original plaster in the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s collection, will be there to invoke the sculpture’s original placement.

But the true beauty of the building is just a background to art, and Renwick has truly decided to kick things up a notch with their inaugural exhibition. WONDER (an ALL CAPS title that could be asking for trouble in this time of everyone being oversensitized and visually assaulted 1500000 times a day) truly lives up to its name.

Organized by Nicholas R. Bell, The Fleur and Charles Bresler Curator-in-Charge, the exhibition features nine leading contemporary artists (Jennifer Angus, Chakaia Booker, Gabriel Dawe, Tara Donovan, Patrick Dougherty, Janet Echelman, John Grade, Maya Lin and Leo Villareal)—are each taking over different galleries in the building, creating site-specific installations inspired by the Renwick and turning the building into an experiential art experience like none you have seen of late.

The exhibition also invites you to re-think the concept of craft. Yes, each of these is a painstakingly put together by hand using massive amounts of single materials (be it wood, thread, marbles, pieces of paper or beetles) but it will reset any “handcrafted” expectation settings you have in your head.

What’s more, these pieces are meant to be touched, smelled, looked at and experienced, inside and out, inviting you, as the visitor to truly immerse yourself in both the art and the space. We could say more, but if there was ever a time when a picture is worth not a 1000 but a 1000 000 words, this is it. So, enjoy the photos below and we will see you at the gates of Wonder on the 13th and beyond.

Welcome back, Renwick – we missed you.

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