With the November reopening of the much-anticipated Renwick Gallery, as well as several strong exhibits featuring heavy-hitters of the art world, Washington, D.C.'s fall exhibit season has something for everyone.

By Amy McKeever
September 15, 2015
DC Art
Credit: © Kristoffer Tripplaar / Alamy Stock Photo

The fall season promises to be an exciting one for art in Washington, D.C. Most notably, on November 13, the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s beloved Renwick Gallery reopens its doors after an extensive two-year renovation. Wonder, its opening exhibit, will feature room-sized installations from nine major artists, including Vietnam Veterans Memorial designer Maya Lin. Before then, though, there are plenty of exhibits opening up across town worth making the trek to see.

Dark Fields of the Republic: Alexander Gardner Photographs, 1859-1872

National Portrait Gallery
September 18, 2015 — March 13, 2016

In his time, photographer Alexander Gardner supplied the world with images of the Civil War, the American West, and American Indians. In 2011, the Washington Post wrote that Gardner was one of the Civil War’s “most important and forgotten figures,” whose work was often mistaken for that of fellow photographer Matthew Brady. In this exhibit, the National Portrait Gallery honors Gardner’s role in documenting history and culture, in particular in his role as “President Abraham Lincoln’s preferred photographer.” Keep an eye out for the “cracked-plate” photograph of Lincoln, taken a few weeks before the president’s assassination, which museum director Kim Sajet compared to the Mona Lisa in a press release.

Vermeer’s Woman in Blue Reading a Letter from the Rijksmuseum

National Gallery of Art
September 19 — December 1, 2015

In 1995, the National Gallery of Art hosted an extraordinarily popular exhibition featuring 21 out of 35 known works of Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer, drawing in more than 327,000 visitors. Now, 20 years later, the museum celebrates the painter yet again with the arrival of his ‘Woman in Blue Reading a Letter,’ on loan from Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum. This painting hasn’t been seen in D.C. since the museum’s earlier exhibit closed in 1996, and will hang alongside Vermeer’s other works in the museum’s Dutch and Flemish Cabinet Galleries.

Marvelous Objects: Surrealist Sculpture from Paris to New York

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
October 29, 2015 — February 15, 2015

This fall, the Hirshhorn Museum embarks on a greater exploration of the surrealist movement as portrayed through three-dimensional media. ‘Marvelous Objects’ will display the works of more than 20 American and European surrealist artists, including 85 sculptures from Jean Arp’s Shirt Front and Fork to Alexander Calder’s Devil Fish. This exhibit is billed to be one of the most comprehensive explorations of surrealist sculpture to date.

Question Bridge: Black Males

Phillips Collection
October 8, 2015 — January 3, 2015

Seeking to “represent and redefine black male identity in America,” the Question Bridge is a video documentary that asks black men of all backgrounds, ages, and beliefs about what it is to be a black man in America. In the videos, men pose questions to the camera, questions that are later answered by other men, who ask their own questions, and so on. Since 2008, the project from artists Chris Johnson, Hank Willis Thomas, Kamal Sinclair, and Bayeté Ross Smith has recorded more than 1,600 of these bridged exchanges; this installation pieces them together to encourage discussion of and explore the diversity within the black male identity.

Gauguin to Picasso: Masterworks from Switzerland

Phillips Collection
October 10, 2015 — January 10, 2016

Also at the Phillips Collection this fall, an opportunity to see heavy-hitters from the likes of Paul Gauguin, Pablo Picasso, and Marc Chagall. Gauguin to Picasso: Masterworks from Switzerland is America’s first-ever joint exhibition of the collections of two major and influential Swiss patrons of the arts: Rudolf Staechelin and Karl Im Obersteg. In addition to the exhibition, curator Renée Maurer will deliver a lecture on October 22 about the influence these two men wielded in supporting impressionist, post-impressionist and School of Paris artists.

Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty

Smithsonian American Art Museum
October 23, 2015 — March 30, 2016

This retrospective of the work of fashion, portrait, and still life photographer Irving Penn launches in the fall featuring works from throughout his career. Penn, who often shot celebrities and fashion models for Vogue, is known as a modern artist with a continued influence on the medium. This exhibit includes the 146 photographs in the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s permanent collection, as well as another 100 donated by the Irving Penn Foundation. It all kicks off with an opening party co-hosted by Brightest Young Things.


Renwick Gallery
November 13, 2015 — Spring/Summer 2016

In celebration of the Renwick Gallery's reopening following a two-year renovation, the Smithsonian American Art Museum has asked nine contemporary artists to create installations that evoke wonder—or, as curator Nicholas Bell describes it, "that moment of awe in the face of something new and unknown." These installations include a clutch of 8- to 13-foot towers made out of index cards by Tara Donovan, and Maya Lin's evocation of the Chesapeake Bay made with green marbles cascading down the gallery’s walls and across its floors. The second floor of the exhibit will close on May 8, 2016, and the first floor will close on July 10.

Amy McKeever is on the D.C. beat for Travel + Leisure. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.