If the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, in Washington D.C., was a sports team, we would call this a rebuilding year. Following the divisive Directorship of Richard Koshalek, people looked to incoming Director Melissa Chiu, formerly Director of the Asia Society Museum in New York City, to repair the museum’s tarnished image and troubled Board of Trustees. Since starting work in Fall 2014, she has worked to improve the staff, and has helped add 8 new Trustees – nearly half the Board, not counting ex-officio and honorary members.
But Ms. Chiu, in her first year on the job, is not always inspiring confidence. She appointed Gianni Jetzer, a well-respected curator, as curator-at-large, who is to work nationally and internationally – while headquartered in New York City, instead of Washington D.C. Eyebrows were further raised because Jetzer worked and continues to work for Art Basel, the Switzerland-based international art fair. Mixing the academic and commercial worlds is a red flag in the museum field; conflicts of interest are to be avoided. The Hirshhorn’s management see no conflict, but the potential exists regardless.
Another decision raised more concern, as it was announced that the Hirshhorn’s 40th Anniversary Gala would be held in New York. While other anniversary events were held in D.C., this move, combined with Mr. Jetzer’s appointment, felt like a slap to Washington. It’s easy to discern the New York art world’s supercilious attitude toward D.C., and D.C.’s concomitant inferiority complex. For a sampling of recent articles on the subject, try Phillip Kennicott in The Washington Post, and Kriston Capps in the Washington City Paper.
Let’s be clear here: Ms. Chiu could not be doing these things without support and participation of the Hirshhorn’s Board of Trustees. To lay all blame at her door would be naive at best. The goal, clearly, is to draw more support for the Hirshhorn from out-of-town donors, which suggests two things: 1) the museum is serious about building up its support base wherever and whenever and/or 2) museum management feels there is not enough support in D.C. and must rely on the outside. After all, the Hirshhorn is part of the Smithsonian Institution, and therefore a museum for, and perhaps of, the entire country. But I understand what it means when a city feels neglected; I used to work in Hartford.
But the Hirshhorn, as part of the Smithsonian Institution’s roster of museums, is not entirely out of its element in NYC. There are two Smithsonian museums in the Big Apple: The Cooper-Hewitt and the George Gustav Heye Center, part of the National Museum of the American Indian. In this way it’s not so strange. Suppose that the Tate Modern were to hold an event in St. Ives, home of its sister institution? It’s all in the family, isn’t it? That’s an imperfect comparison, I know. St. Ives does not stand in relation to London as New York does to Washington.
Do other museums do this? You might argue that a multi-venue institution such as the Guggenheim could pull it off, but I can’t think of any other comparable occurrence. Though the Smithsonian is a national institution, created by the government and supported by government funds, it remains rooted in Washington D.C. Perhaps the Hirshhorn’s management is seeking to establish a new paradigm, a museum that has significant presence beyond its physical location and website. One could argue that, as the Smithsonian is a national institution, that any part of the country is fair game. But no matter how far the branches spread, a tree must maintain its roots to survive, and so must a museum. The Hirshhorn may have an international reach, but it is a Washington D.C. museum. Ms. Chiu and her Board should reinforce and reassert that relationship by holding major events in D.C., and thus drawing its audience to the museum itself. Building relationships with an institution is best done close-up. At a distance, it’s more likely to be a relationship with an individual, be it a curator/director/Trustee, which lasts so long as that person is associated with that museum. Get people in the building, and they’re more likely to bond with the museum.
The museum’s main failing in this case is a misplaced emphasis. Happy hour and yoga classes are fine, but something art related would be better, and on a scale that re-emphasizes the Hirshhorn’s heritage as a Washington museum. Melissa Chiu could soothe the wounded egos of the D.C. area art world, by nurturing that world with the same determination and fervency she would use on a nation-wide scale.