Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden Credit: Photo by Cathy Carver

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The name of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden has always suggested two institutions that share a single campus. The Museum is easy to spot on the National Mall: It’s the massive donut-shaped concrete bunker, the one with the Dodge Spirit crushed underneath a googly-eyed volcanic boulder parked out front. The namesake and easily overlooked Sculpture Garden boasts this work—Jimmie Durham’s “Still Life with Spirit and Xitle” (2007)—plus more than 60 other pieces, give or take.

Now these two Hirshhorn halves would rather be known as a whole. The museum is quietly rolling out a new name: The Hirshhorn National Museum of Modern Art.

The new moniker now appears in a prominent banner on the Hirshhorn’s website. It also graces the museum’s entrance now, part of a redesign of the lobby level by Hiroshi Sugimoto. “We proudly introduce and remind museum-goers on our front door that they are entering the National Museum of Modern Art,” says Hirshhorn spokesperson Kate Gibbs.

It’s not a hard rebranding, exactly. The museum still refers to itself as the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in press materials. But the elevated title reflects a broader pivot at the 46-year-old museum. The Hirshhorn has tried to reposition itself as a global player in the art world since the arrival of director Melissa Chiu. Now in her sixth year, Chiu has greatly expanded the museum’s board, which now comprises more than 30 trustees, including artist Theaster Gates as well as Jill Cooper Udall, wife of New Mexico Senator Tom Udall. Hirshhorn curators have staged swashbuckling projects by the likes of Charline von Heyl, Hito Steyerl, and Arthur Jafa. And in 2017, for the first time ever, the Hirshhorn clocked more than 1 million visitors, thanks to Yayoi Kusamua’s blockbuster Infinity Mirrors.

While the newly dubbed National Museum of Modern Art might have its sights set on global currents in contemporary art, the Hirshhorn isn’t leaving its backyard Sculpture Garden behind. In fact, the museum’s leadership is zeroing in on the sunken art parcel across Jefferson Drive SW next. An ambitious proposal—another renovation designed by Sugimoto and his New Material Research Laboratory—would center performances, events, and rotating works in the garden.

The museum has been trying out new programs in its outdoor areas in recent years. Douglas Gordon’s “SONG1,” a 360-degree video piece projected onto the exterior of the Gordon Bunshaft–designed Hirshhorn building, opened the eyes of curators and visitors to new possibilities. The museum has staged performances by the likes of Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon and Oneohtrix Point Never. Currently, the museum is exhibiting Lee Ufan’s “Open Dimension,” a suite of sensitive Minimalist installations, in the courtyard area where permanent works usually go (and often go unnoticed). 

The shift at the Hirshhorn National Museum of Modern Art coincides with a rebranding by another Smithsonian Institution museum. Just down the road on Independence Avenue, the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, a Smithsonian institute that houses the nation’s collections of artworks from Asia, now goes by the name of the National Museum of Asian Art. A single center that comprises two collections, the museum formerly known as the Freer | Sackler has long sought greater visibility, especially since the museum is largely underground. 

The move by the Smithsonian’s Asian Art museum is more than a touchup to its image, however. Back in June 2019, Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley asked the Smithsonian Institution to strip the museum of Sackler’s namesake, citing the national opioid addiction crisis. Nevermind that Arthur M. Sackler, who died before the Sackler family produced OxyContin, never profited from its sale. In response, Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III told Merkley no, but not because the senator had the wrong Sackler. For legal reasons, the museum must preserve the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery name.

The Smithsonian may be saddled with the Sackler name—but they don’t have to use it, which is why the Smithsonian is promoting the National Museum of Asian Art instead. While the Hirshhorn isn’t looking to escape any scurrilous associations, its title boost shows the road that the Hirshhorn National Museum of Modern Art is already walking. And for the Smithsonian, the new names show that art is on an equal footing with science and history. National museums reflect national priorities.

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