The Renwick’s Curator-in-Charge On What It Means to Open Ourselves to Wonder

Before the renovation, Nicholas Bell asked nine artists to tour the building and think deeply about public spaces dedicated to art

Nicholas Bell, curator-in-charge at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, has been at the museum since 2009. He has curated exhibitions on baskets and on wood—craft as it is traditionally conceived—as well as on contemporary craft (the museum’s 2012 exhibition, “40 under 40: Craft Futures”). He stresses the importance of materials and of the idea of “making.” His passion for the museum, its renovation and reopening on November 13, and the inaugural “Wonder” exhibition were evident when we spoke with him.

First off, can you tell us why you choose the evocative word “wonder” as the title of the Renwick Gallery’s inaugural exhibition? In the catalog, you talk about how the idea of wonder is “now ever so quickly followed by knowing.”

A lot of us think of “wonder” as bit childlike. Which is a shame. There’s a lot of value in coming into contact with things you don’t understand—things that are extraordinary, that are beyond our everyday life.

In the New York Times recently, art critic Holland Cotter wrote about museums as “powerful history-editing machines”? Does that apply to the Renwick?

We are opening this building as an art museum for the third time in three different centuries. As a culture and as a society we make choices—we may foreground other priorities. Although the building was commissioned as an art museum, it was pressed into service as a military supply center before it was ever actually used as a museum. This serves to remind us that we make choices as a people. Sometimes we choose against the arts, and sometimes we choose for them. The words above the Renwick’s door, chiseled in stone, are “dedicated to art.”

In a sense the “Wonder” show is about the building as an important space to come and experience something. What seems most important to experience is wonder. We need public places where we can open ourselves to wonder.

You write that your goal was to create an “immersive hall of wonders.” “Immersive” is a key term right now—in movies, 3D is growing in popularity, and in theater, it’s not enough for an audience to simply sit and observe action on a stage. And “hall of wonders” speaks of the sideshow or carnival, places that make a clear bid for our attention.

It’s ironic—so much of our attention is focused on such a small space in our lives. We are a screen-bound culture. I have three children under five. They have made me hyper aware of how important it is to pay attention to your immediate surroundings. Small children are eyes wide open. No filters. They want to know about everything. They have re-taught me how to pay attention. The museum can do this for us like a child can.

One of the reasons I honed in on the nine artists in this exhibition is that they make things that are very large. Their work makes you intensely self-aware. If we go to a museum and see things that are small, on pedestals—clay and glass, lots of vessels—it’s all wonderful, but it doesn’t necessarily make you as aware of your surroundings. But if you walk into a gallery and see a tower of index cards that’s 13 feet tall, as you do with Tara Donovan’s work, you almost shrink in relation. You think quite viscerally about where you are.

As important and as critical as are efforts like digitization, there is just no real substitute for experiencing the artwork in person. I really relish watching visitors walk into each successive gallery. They quite literally rock back on their heels—eyes widening, jaws dropping. There’s a physiological element to encountering these art works.

This is why we must have public spaces to go to. This is why this building has to be here.

Do the artists you chose in some way comment on the Renwick's permanent collection?

They do. It’s not necessarily overt. One of the reasons that I chose these specific nine is that they are extraordinarily passionate about making things. They have a heightened sense of making things. Material is so much larger than you. It looms over you. These works make you start thinking about materials in your life and in your world. They reaffirm the significance of the stuff—there is value in considering how objects come into being in our world.

How would you define contemporary art and contemporary craft? In what ways are they different and in what ways are they similar?

I don’t take much interest in the division, I’m suspicious of a focus on the division. I always lean toward blurring the lines rather than distinguishing them. What really matters are the people who make things, who are interested in expressing themselves. I’m not necessarily interested in what people call themselves. I don’t think those labels have very much value.

The DIY movement has seized a lot of imaginations lately. There seems to be a new respect for doing things with your own two hands—pickling, canning, fermenting. And outside the kitchen, in the tech world, the “maker movement” and “maker spaces” are very au courant right now. The “Wonder” catalogue discusses the importance of materials in craft. Could you speak a bit about that?

The interest in skill, process, and labor will continue into our future as a museum. There’s a lot of value in looking at the world as whole through the lens of craft. All of the artists in the opening exhibition are essentially contemporary artists who are very passionate about making and materials. Which ties them to the history of craft.

Are there particular interests in the environment and the natural world among the artists in this show?

Yes! How this exhibition came into being was: I invited all these artists to come tour the building when it was empty. We had moved out, it was worn out, the renovation hadn’t started yet. I had never seen it that way, and it was a real luxury to see it that way. The artists proposed what they wanted to do. I asked them to look at the architecture and think about the theme of wonder. I didn’t give them any other criteria. I selected these artists because they’re all sensitive to space, their work makes you aware of your own presence.

What is fascinating to me is that quite a few of them went to nature as a go-to point, completely without any pressure from me: Maya Lin, working with the idea of the Chesapeake. John Grade, trees. Patrick Daugherty, sticks. Jennifer Angus, bugs. There’s very much the sensibility of the outside world when you walk through these galleries. It reinforces the idea that museums are a place that can help you think about the outside world. When people come to the museum and to this show, they are bowled over and amazed. What this does is help you see with fresh eyes, and think about the world around you in a different way.

I notice that one of events marking the reopening of the museum features craft beer! Is that just a play on words—craft beer in a museum devoted to craft?

The whole craft-brewing phenomenon is actually one of the most visible examples of skilled making. Every time you buy a six-pack of beer from a small brewery, you’re supporting people who are passionate about making things.

The Renwick Gallery, home to the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s craft and decorative arts collections, reopens Friday, November 13 after to a 2-year, $30 million renovation. The inaugural exhibition “Wonder” features gallery-sized installations from nine contemporary artists.

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