Discover SAAM’s Renwick Gallery
Explore the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery, the nation’s premier museum dedicated to craft. Learn how the historic building was saved from demolition and has since become a celebration of the handmade in the contemporary world. Join Stephanie Stebich, The Margaret and Terry Stent Director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and its Renwick Gallery, curators Nora Atkinson and Mary Savig, and six artists whose work is in the museum's collection, as they discuss the questions, “What is craft?” and “Why is it important today?” Craft artists push the boundaries of mediums including fiber, ceramics, glass, metal, and wood, which means you can always expect the unexpected at the Renwick!
- (Stephanie Stebich) The Renwick is a magical place from the very moment you walk in the doors. You're greeted by this grand staircase,but a quite surprising, elegant, sashaying red carpet tumbling down the stairs to greet you and invite you upstairs. The Renwick is a place of wonder and discovery. When I talk about the Renwick, I begin the story with the building itself.
- (Narrator) Stand on the front steps and look up and you'll find the words "DEDICATED TO ART" carved on the historic facade. It's a fitting caption for the first building in the United States designed with the intention of being an art museum. Its first bricks were laid in 1859 to house the art collection of Washington, DC banker and philanthropist William Corcoran. But by 1900,Corcoran's art collection had moved out and the U.S. Court of claims had moved in, and the place once "dedicated to art" became just another federal building. By the late 1950s, the structure was headed for demolition. That is, until First Lady Jackie Kennedy intervened. She fought for the preservation of this historic building, just steps from her home at the White House, and largely due to her efforts, what we now call the Renwick Gallery was saved from the wrecking ball. In 1972, the Renwick opened its doors as the home of the Smithsonian American Art Museum's contemporary craft program. If you are not sure what craft is, exactly, you're not alone.
- (Nora Atkinson) Craft is kind of impossible to define. Everybody has a different idea of what craft is. Traditionally, as far as museum contexts go, craft has been divided up basically into five buckets of media: wood, fiber, ceramics, metal, and glass. But so many of the things that we've been collecting really play outside of those boundaries. I think the beauty of craft in a lot of ways is that it's a moving definition.
- (Mary Savig) Craft is about the process, not the end. So I think there's inspiration from being in the midst of process and seeing that at play in the galleries. Craft tends to show you something about how it was made. So in this way it always carries the presence of the artist, including their memories and their feelings and lived experiences, all through the material trace of their hands.
- (Consuelo Jiménez Underwood) What I like about the crafts is that a true craftsperson not only has to express themselves and their tradition, but they have to be one with that material. They have to know that material
- (Steven Young Lee) As a maker, I think that's something that it comes slowly. It's not something that you can just look up really quickly on the internet and then know everything about it. I think being a committed craft artist is you get better by doing it more and doing it repetitively. I think that as our world becomes so much more virtual, there's an innate need for a lot of us as humans to feel like you want to engage with physical material
and actually touch things. I love that it boils down to that very simple way of connecting.
- (Katie Hudnall) What I'm so interested in craft is that you're literally
thinking with your hands. In the craft world, often you're starting with the process or material and you're
exploring that material and you're developing an empathy for that material.
- (Chawne Kimber) There's always going to be this need to restore back to a sense of what humans are capable of with their own hands. Even just from a utilitarian perspective, craft is important. But we as humans have a drive to distinguish ourselves as individuals, and we do that through adornment. And so once we knit our new sweater, we're going to wanna embroider on it and embellish the knit in the sleeve to kind of say that "I am here, I am not like you. I am different. And I will show my sparkle to the world". And that comes from craft.
- (Katie Hudnall) One of the things that's really interesting to me is how open craft
has always sort of felt, like it opens itself up to every person. I really love that. Art sometimes can feel like
it's for artists a little bit, and I think craft can be a gateway into art for people who don't have a
relationship necessarily to it.
- (Mary Savig) Craft teaches us empathy. It teaches us connections to each other and hopefully helps us see a vast array of perspectives of everyday life around us.
- (Nora Atkinson) I think the Renwick could make anyone a fan of craft. I think every time people come to the museum they find something unexpected and unlike anything they find anywhere else.
- (Karen LaMonte) I always expect to be surprised when I go in that I think I know what I'm going to see. And then I'm like, "Oh, that's what craft means. Okay."
- (Sharon Kerry-Harlan) The Renwick is enduring. The Renwick is encompassing. The Renwick is enlightening.
- (Chawne Kimber) I think the Renwick represents sort of the pinnacle of craft and what we're doing as a nation, what we want to remember as a nation, and what we want to preserve as a nation, as representative of what we as Americans have built in response to our world.
- (Consuelo Jiménez Underwood) It's a fellowship. The Renwick can't be an institution with one person involved. It's got to be a group of people. All for one and one for all.
- (Nora Atkinson) We just have a lot of fun asking questions about "What is craft in the contemporary world?" I'm very proud that we can put on exhibitions in a singular place that feels like it matters.