We received our invitation to the opening reception of “A Measure of the Earth: The Cole-Ware Collection of American Baskets” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery. We were excited to go and made our reservations. As we posted earlier Katherine Lewis had several baskets in this prestigious exhibition. The week before the opening someone asked if the possible federal government shutdown was going to effect our plans. “They are not going to shut the Smithsonian museums!” The following Tuesday morning we found out that Congress considered museums non-essential services and they did indeed shut them down.
We had non-refundable reservations so we went hoping that an agreement would be reached quickly and we could still attend the exhibit. We arrived in Washington, DC on Thursday, October 3 as planned which was the same day as the Capital was locked down as a result of an incident that involved a woman being killed there by police. We walked down to the White House unaware of the event and were surprised at the heavily armed presence of law enforcement. Katherine decided to protest in front of the White House for more basketry anyway.
The Renwick Gallery is at the corner of Pennsylvania Ave. and 17th St. NW just down the block from the White House. Some of the basketmakers had arranged to meet up in front of the Renwick Gallery at the scheduled time of the opening despite the shutdown. Because of the earlier incident there was actually police tape preventing us from even getting to the front door of the Renwick. It was fun anyway to meet some of the basketmakers and their families and friends who showed up to celebrate. People shared stories and tips on what they were up to on their visits to our nation’s slightly dysfunctional capital.
While we were standing near the Renwick, a large motorcade assembled and left the White House grounds. The police blocked traffic in front of the Renwick and the motorcade drove out and we could see Vice-President Joe Biden waving from the back of one of the limousines. Unfortunately he didn’t stop to let us in to see the show though the police then took down the yellow barrier tape.
On Tuesday when we found out the Smithsonian would be closed due to the federal government shutdown, we had sent emails to our congressional representatives about Katherine’s story. On Thursday after our arrival in Washington, DC we were pleasantly surprised to get a call from our Washington 2nd District Representative Rick Larsen’s office. Rep. Larsen’s staff arranged for us to visit his office in the Rayburn Building. He and his staff were interested in our unique story and sympathetic to our disappointment in not getting in to see the exhibition. Steve took the photo of Katherine and Rep. Larsen while his staff member Bryan Thomas was taking a photo as well. They were laughing because Bryan was saying to make sure that Katherine’s basket purse was in the photo.
Bryan Thomas contacted our local newspaper the Skagit Valley Herald with Katherine’s unique story and photo. She was later reached on the phone by the Herald reporter for an interview while we were on our way to Tennessee where Katherine was going to be teaching. Ironically Katherine’s story wound up on the front page of the Herald because of the shutdown even though it hadn’t been of interest to any northwest art media before the trip. We liked Rep. Larsen’s quote from the article: “She isn’t in the basket-weaving business to have her stuff in the Renwick Gallery. She’s an artisan, she loves what she’s doing and she’s going to continue doing it.”
Although we were unable to see the exhibition, we did have the opportunity to finally meet the basket collectors, Renwick curators and staff, and more of the basket makers represented in the collection at a reception hosted by Steve Cole and Martha Ware. All the basket makers were presented with the exhibtion catalog by Elizabeth Broun, Director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Renwick Gallery.
Of course, the federal government shutdown ended the next week and the exhibtion opened without the fanfare, and will stay open until December 8. One nice consolation was a set of photos of the exhibition that the Smithsonian posted to Flickr. It was also pretty cool to see one of Katherine’s baskets used to promote the exhibition on the Smithsonian’s website.
Having your work represented in an exhibition at the Smithsonian will probably only happen once, so Katherine is headed back to the other Washington to see the exhibition on November 8. After all persistance is necessary if you are a traditional craft artisan.