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The Renwick Gallery

After two years of renovation work, the Renwick Gallery reopens on Nov. 13 and the museum hopes to make its presence known in a big way. To celebrate, the Renwick Gallery is hosting a splashy exhibit of contemporary art installations, featuring work by Tara Donovan, Maya Lin, Leo Villareal, and more. Almost 6,000 people have affirmed on Facebook that they want to attend the museum’s launch party on Nov. 10.

To ensure that no one in the District misses the fact that the Renwick Gallery is back, the museum has fixed a sign over the building’s front entrance. A searingly ugly sign.

This week, workers at the museum erected an LED board over the historic signage of the Renwick Gallery. The legend that has graced the front of the building since the 1880s reads “DEDICATED TO ART” in letters inscribed in stone. The new LED sign also spells out “DEDICATED TO ART,” but with a jaunty addition—a caret with a call-out embedded in the middle of the phrase. Now, the sign reads “DEDICATED TO ^the future of ART.”

The Renwick Gallery, which was designed in 1858, is a National Historic Landmark. It’s the work of James Renwick, the great American architect who also designed the Smithsonian Castle and the Oak Hill Cemetery Chapel. Located cater-corner from the White House, this Smithsonian Institution museum holds pride of place in D.C. There’s next to no chance that historic-preservation authorities in D.C. would ever entertain adding copyeditor’s marks to the front entrance.

Ongoing renovation work at the Renwick Gallery 

In fact, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts never approved it. Thomas Luebke, secretary for the CFA, says that the sign never came up among the various fixes involved with the Renwick Gallery’s exterior renovation (details that the commission did review). It was authorized by Betsy Broun, director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Renwick Gallery. The LED sign won’t stay up forever, according to the museum. “We thought it would be fun and cheeky to do for the opening,” said a spokesperson.

While it’s only a temporary fix, the sign may nevertheless be with us long after the big November 10 party. Officials at the museum said that the marker could stay up for a year. A spokesperson added that the outdoor lights mirror the new LED lighting technology now used to illuminate all of the interior spaces within the Renwick Gallery building. For now, there’s no date in sight for taking down the Future of Art signage. Another LED sign will be attached to the fence around the building.

There’s one bright side to the sign—and no, not the fact that it will shine over the pedestrian plaza in front of the White House at night. It does draw the eye to a building detail that’s easy to overlook: The bronze medallion set in the pediment of the building’s façade. It’s a profile of William Wilson Corcoran, the founder of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, which opened in the Second Empire–style building in 1874. (The Corcoran museum moved to its now-former home on 17th St. NW, the Beaux-Arts building designed by Ernest Flagg, in 1897.)

A sidebar on that medallion: Corcoran commissioned a Richmond sculptor, Moses Ezekiel, to build the pediment profile and other architectural gingerbread in the 1880s. The museum’s opening was stalled for more than a decade by the Civil War, during which the building was occupied by the Quarter Master General’s Corps for the Union Army. Corcoran—an avowed Confederate sympathizer, according to The Outdoor Sculpture of Washington, D.C., by James Goode—spent the war years in Europe, expanding his art collection. Upon his return, Corcoran added medallions symbolizing Architecture and Sculpture, a broad lion-head keystone, groups of putti over the central columns, and other building features.

Other renovation details are bound to pop for viewers when the Renwick Gallery reopens. One addition that sounds appealing: A dramatic new red carpet for the museum’s grand staircase by the French designer Odile Decq. It’s going to need to be a knockout to balance that tacky sign.

Photos by Eric Fidler