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Even if you haven’t seen the Renwick Gallery’s “Wonder” exhibition in person, you’ve likely seen the Instagram photos: its walls of geometric insect designs, room-spanning rainbow strings, selfies taken within wondrous stick shelters.
After undergoing two years of renovations, the Renwick reopened in November to more fanfare than anyone could have predicted. On the first day alone, about 9,000 people queued up to see the craft museum’s celebratory exhibition. (In years past, this same number of people would’ve been spread out over a whole month.) Even now, months after its reopening, hundreds of visitors continue to stream into the museum daily to experience “Wonder,” a museum-wide exhibition that completely transforms the interior of the Renwick—the first structure in the United States built specifically as an art museum.
Filling the Renwick with nine room-sized installations by as many contemporary artists (Jennifer Angus, Chakaia Booker, Gabriel Dawe, Tara Donovan, Patrick Dougherty, Janet Echelman, John Grade, Maya Lin, and Leo Villareal), the Renwick’s curator-in-charge, Nicholas R. Bell, remains exuberantly surprised by the exhibition’s popularity. Bell comes from a background in material history and culture, not the more traditional art history route. He’s been at the Renwick since 2009 and has been responsible for a handful of successful exhibitions, including 2012’s popular 40th anniversary show, “40 under 40: Craft Futures.”
With “Wonder,” however, Bell has not only redefined what the Renwick Gallery is but what it can be: an interactive museum that engages visitors through the veil of social media. Recently, Washington City Paper sat down with Bell to talk about how “Wonder” came about, why it resonates with so many people (but not with everyone), what it’s like curating a museum in the age of selfies, and the evolving definitions of craft.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you come about with the idea for “Wonder”?
The show really came about in answer to a funny question, which is “Why is a museum?” It’s an odd question. “Why do you have a museum? What is it for? Why do we need them? Why should we care about them? Why should we strive to maintain them instead of letting them go?” And I started to think about [it]. “Well, what do we hope to experience at a museum? What are we really looking for there?” And there’s all sorts of answers in terms of education and understanding history and where you come from.
Entertainment, of course, is a loaded part of that quotient, but I think there’s something more profound at play, and that’s the opportunity to experience wonder. That’s not something we’ll experience always. In fact, I think each of us is lucky to experience it a handful of times in our life in a museum setting, and it will be different for every person. It depends on such subjective forces that you never know what kind of thing or what kind of context will help somebody to experience wonder. But I think that as museums, one of the cornerstones of our service to the public is to create a space with the opportunity for subjective, intensive encounters with art, be those what they may.
And so then I was confronted with an even more difficult question, which was, “How do you purposely—not just by chance—give people the opportunity to experience wonder?”
I was looking for artists that are really adept at activating architectural space, because I think in all of this what’s important to circle back around to is the fact that you have to come here to experience it. It’s not going to be the same on Instagram or in a newspaper or in the Washingtonian. You have to be there yourself. You have to put your physical self in the museum to understand its value and the potential for that experience.
So right after we closed, I started to call these artists up and said, “Look, you don’t know me, but this is the Renwick Gallery, this is what it’s about, this is what this building is like, and here is this idea of trying to tease out wonder as an experience that you can have. I think that your work already does that so let’s talk about doing it all together.” And they all came to the museum.
To what do you owe the exhibition’s success? Do you think it’s the concept of wonder as you described it before, or is there something else going on?
I think there are different reasons that people have come. I think one is that we got great press. I think [that’s] the reason for why people came at the very opening, because of course there was no word of mouth. There was just a press office article. Once people came, I think we’ve had incredible word of mouth. I mean that both in person and I see countless comments, comment cards, and posts online, and so forth saying, “I went, and then I came back with my parents and I came back with my friends.”
And the other has been that social media has allowed people not only to show people what the exhibit looks like but to tell them about it. I keep saying this, but the most exciting part of Instagram, for me, is not the photographs; it’s the comments. I love seeing the things that people say about their visits when they post those photographs, because it’s a way for us to sort of eavesdrop on the public and to hear how people genuinely express their feelings about the experience at the museum when they’re not even saying it to us.
Because it’s always so crowded, do you feel like the crowds are getting in the way of other people experiencing what’s going on?
I don’t think so. I think there are different kinds of experiences. I’m in here first thing in the morning, and this morning even, I walked around and made sure everything was where it should be, and I was the only person in the galleries. And that is a completely different experience than being in here with thousands of people. But it’s not a better experience. I watch people come through here by the hundreds an hour and what I’ve noticed is strangers sharing some kind of joint moment. People connecting with each other over their appreciation of the work.
In fact, I read our last couple of week’s comment cards just before you came, and one of them said something like, “It’s so interesting to see strangers making eye contact with each other, smiling at each other, kind of following each other through the galleries.” I think there’s something about the way that you can experience these galleries that makes people want to do it with other people, even if you come by yourself. I think that’s very meaningful.
Do you feel that people taking photos all the time distracts them from actually experiencing the art?
I take a decidedly non-partisan view on that. I know many people will come through here and take zero photos. And many people will come through here and take many, many photos. I don’t think it is the role of the museum to judge who is having a more profound or meaningful experience. I think that those people can decide perfectly well for themselves what makes the best experience for them. That is certainly a debate within our culture right now. It seems to be a hot topic at the moment. I’m perfectly happy for us to be a sort of ground zero for people to test out how they really truly feel about that themselves.
Do you feel like you would have such huge lines out the door if you said “no photos” or if you had a “no photos” day?
I think that people are coming for the art. They may have a different experience, but not for a second do I think people will stop coming to the museum if they couldn’t take pictures. But I do think that it encourages them thoroughly to have a different quality of experience, because they can.
Would you consider it? It could be an interesting experiment to have a “no photos” day.
I’ve been asked this a number of times now. Should we have a “no photos” day? It would be interesting, but what I don’t like about the idea is that it renders judgment. It says [that] by taking photographs, you are somehow devaluing your museum visit. “Why don’t you come here and have a better visit?” That’s how I read it. To which I say, “We’re not the right person to tell you that.”
The Renwick Gallery defines itself as a “contemporary craft museum.” How do you define craft these days?
I have a whole bookshelf about that question.
What about with modern technologies—like the maker movement and 3-D-printed art—is that considered craft?
I think it can be.
But how do you distinguish what’s craft and what isn’t?
There are many, many definitions of craft. Some of it we pay more attention to in this museum than others. Look at what’s called modern craft, which is essentially the way that craft has been thought about since the Industrial Revolution. Suddenly, once you have mass industrialization, making becomes something that you think about critically, as opposed to something that you just do. [A] great design historian in England came up with a definition that I like very much, in the ’60s. He called it “workmanship of risk” versus “workmanship of [certainty].” Instead of saying, “Did you use tools or did you use technology? Did you use a 3-D printer?” [we should ask], “Did the end result of what you were trying to do rely on your skill or not? Did it rely on you somehow being skilled in such a way that you manifested the appropriate outcome? Or was that outcome done really by pushing a button?”
What about many artists who today just have the people in their studio make their works?
All those people working in those studios are craftspeople.
Yes, they are. But would you call the artist a craftsperson? Or are they merely a designer?
Do I consider the artist to be a craftsperson in that regard?
That’s a good question. This is going to be a disappointing answer for you probably, but the truth is, a lot of people often want to engage me in some sort of hairsplitting between “what is an artist?” [and] “what is a craftsperson?”
The more time I spend at the Renwick, the less value I put into nomenclature and strict disciplinarity. It’s all such a big gray area. And really, what we’re trying to do here is, instead of putting people in boxes and saying, “Oh no, no, no, no. You are an artist, and you’re a craftsperson. Never the two shall meet,” [we’re] saying “Let’s look at how people engage with making: How is making a part of our culture?”
So, I’m a lot less interested in giving people titles than I am in trying to tease out how craft exists less as a discipline than as it does as a way of approaching life. Because I think throughout the modern period—really from the Industrial Revolution on—we’ve been really struggling with the idea of what our values are around how things come into being, how things are created, and what that says about us as different peoples. And we are the appropriate place to have that conversation.
There have been a lot of comparisons between the Renwick and the Hirshhorn, though the Hirshhorn is a contemporary art museum and this is a craft museum.
I’ve heard a number of comparisons between us and the Hirshhorn since we reopened, which I think is funny.
Because you have these contemporary artists, who have also shown in the Hirshhorn.
I guess you’re right, except, I think, if you were going to show something much more conceptual, it would make absolute sense in the Hirshhorn. What these artists have in common is that they are heavily invested in the making of their artworks. This is not conceptualism. It’s not minimalism. But it is really about creation. This is about creating objects and how we interact with those objects and what they mean for us. And I think that was key [for] the artists that I selected for the show. It couldn’t just be, “Oh I put some text on the wall and maybe there’s a strobe light somewhere or drew some lines on the floor.” That’s not going to cut it at the Renwick. It has to have that sensitivity to materials and to making.
A lot of critics have written reviews of this show saying that it’s either not serious enough—too Instagrammable—or not craft.
I just have to say, “too Instagrammable?” Is it a crime to have something be photogenic?
No, but some critics have written that there’s not enough substance to the artworks. What do you say to people who say that? And why do you think there’s this disconnect between the critics and the audience?
I don’t think it’s that clean cut. I disagree with them obviously. Otherwise I wouldn’t have thrown two years of my life into it.
Of course, but what would you say to prove them wrong?
I’ve read a handful of critical reviews that say, you know, it’s not their cup of tea. I think if I somehow did the impossible and pleased everybody, I would’ve done something wrong. A, it’s just not realistic, but, B, if you’re making everyone happy, somehow you’re not doing anything original. I have seen such reviews, for example from your newspaper.
I didn’t write that one.
I know you didn’t. And I simply don’t agree. I don’t want to get into a whole detailed rebuttal of [Washington City Paper contributor] Kriston [Capps] or some other person. But I will say that there is the exhibition that you come [to] see. And then, the book I wrote about it is there almost as a shadow exhibition. So, I thought that if our specific goal was to somehow elucidate or to somehow create a space for this very specific response type, which is completely different than anything we’d ever tried to do before, it needed to be largely unmediated.
And I know that, for example, [Philip] Kennicott [of the Washington Post] said, “Oh you know, the book is great, but there’s so little information on the walls.” Well that was on purpose. That was because I think that the more information I put into the galleries, the more I would be mediating people’s experience, instead of saying, “Just come and feel this,” because, really, I’m looking not simply for an intellectual connection. I’m looking for a physiological connection to the space. Come and experience this. I didn’t want to get in people’s way of having them have that moment.
So it’s more democratized, the show in general. You have families and all kinds of people who might not normally go to an art museum.
It’s true. Just in the comments I read today, somebody wrote to us that they’d gone through the galleries and taken turns with their son. They would each take turns covering their eyes and having the other person describe to them what they were seeing. And I thought that was the coolest thing. I should do that with my kids. So, like, what does this look like to an eight-year-old? If you haven’t seen it before, and then uncovering your eyes and seeing how different it is for you.
And I thought that was great, but yes, it was specifically designed to connect with people of all ages, because it is meant to be an emotional experience. It is not meant to be something where it’s like, “Oh, well you have to have this background in Western thought, otherwise you don’t really understand what ‘Wonder’ is.”
I want people to walk in and say, “Wow, I’ve never seen anything like this. What is that? What is it about? How did it get in here? What is it made out of? How did they do that?” Because in that 90 seconds or two minutes that they’re thinking through that, nothing else is going on in their life. And that right there justifies the museum as a physical place to go.
How is technology changing the nature of curating museums?
You’re able to do a lot more from your chair than you used to be able to.
But how are you setting things up differently?
You know, I think throughout the field, there is a temptation to use more and more technology in the galleries, and that’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they can offer us different ways of connecting to information than we had before, and there is value. And I’m thinking for example of touchscreens and throwing up new video content and so forth or having QR codes in galleries. I don’t know if you saw the “Greek Slave” upstairs, where you have the QR code. You can download the 3-D scan. So that’s great. I love that. But it is really easy to overdo it, and if there’s anything we’ve learned from the last two months, it’s that there is no substitution for the real thing. People will continue to visit museums to experience authenticity, as loaded a term as that is. People want to see what they imagine to be the real thing.
Some of the greatest and most profound museum experiences I’ve had are in places like the Freer-Sackler, because I will walk into a gallery there and see something that is 5,000 years old that was made by a person, and it will blow me away. No technology, no emerging technology or digital technology can replicate that experience.