Over the summer, the director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden somehow managed to offend an entire city.
Last October, when Melissa Chiu took up her post as the Hirshhorn’s new director, she raised eyebrows right off the bat. With her first hire, she appointed a curator-at-large to be based in New York. That’s where Chiu’s husband and daughter live, and where (until recently) she has been stationed, near the epicenter of the contemporary art world. For as long as she’s been with the Hirshhorn, museum watchers have asked whether and when Chiu would move her base of operations from New York to the National Mall.
Then, in August, much to the dismay of D.C.’s arts community, she signaled that she’d chosen the dark side: The New York Times reported that the Hirshhorn would host its 40th anniversary gala in New York. Instead of bringing society with her to D.C., the director of the Hirshhorn had decided to move one of the museum’s biggest celebrations ever off of the Mall and out of the city. Few saw eye-to-eye with Chiu’s decision, and many District residents who had no reason to know her name were suddenly saying it through gritted teeth. The Washington Post’s Philip Kennicott put it bluntly: This was a snub.
The Times reported that the November 9th party will honor 40 artists who have all played a role in the museum’s growth over four decades, among them Jeff Koons, Anish Kapoor, and Marina Abramović. These 40 artists (and the gala’s 400 guests) will celebrate the Hirshhorn at 4 World Trade Center, at a comfortable remove from the city where the museum is located—and the teachers, docents, members, and viewers who know it best.
Yet few of her critics could possibly know the depths of the crisis at D.C.’s favorite bunker. She arrived at a museum in much worse shape than people on the outside knew. The staff was depleted, a result of natural attrition but also chaos over the last few years. Board members had walked off in a highly publicized spat with the previous director, Richard Koshalek, who also resigned. So did the chief curator, Kerry Brougher, who will serve as the inaugural director for the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles.
“The climate was pretty serious,” Chiu says. “The institution just before I came on board was in the red. If we hadn’t been part of the Smithsonian, we would’ve gone the way of the Corcoran.”
The C-word might’ve shut some people up: District residents are still struggling with psychic trauma from the failure of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. She also could have mentioned that the Archives of American Art and the National Museum of African American Culture and History host fundraiser galas elsewhere (New York and Los Angeles, respectively). The Tate Americas Foundation hosts a major benefit gala in New York every three years and smaller dinners and events in between. Since 1999, the charity has raised more than $100 million for the Tate—the U.K. art institution.
Or the director could have appealed to the cold logic of cash. Whereas the ceiling for a gala at the Hirshhorn tops out at around $300,000—including the one that Chiu hosted for the opening of “Shirin Neshat: Facing History”—the museum has raised more than $1 million toward its New York event. (Chiu says that event can raise $1.5 million by the time it’s over.)
Frankly, Chiu could’ve shushed a lot of District residents by telling them that the Hirshhorn is doing another “SONG1,” the hyper-popular video projection that transfixed National Mall viewers during the spring of 2012. (More on those plans in a moment.) But Chiu’s immediate answer to the outcry was less than reassuring.
Proud to be part of DC building the future of the @hirshhorn. Go DC art! Go Nats!
— Melissa Chiu (@melissa_chiu) August 11, 2015
Does Melissa Chiu hate D.C.? In the words of hometown hero Bryce Harper: That’s a clown question, bro. Her protestations of Natitude notwithstanding, Chiu could be a strong friend to the District and its artists and viewers. There may be some things she doesn’t understand about the city. But there are also things that residents don’t realize about her, and in particular, about her plans for D.C.
Chiu insists she can start to put the city’s art on the art-world map by hosting the museum’s 40th birthday in New York—by dissing D.C., even if she insists that this isn’t what she’s doing.
Is she right?
Back in 2003, the artist Bani Abidi commissioned a traditional Pakistani brass pipe band to star in a video project. She asked the street troupe to perform the U.S. national anthem and recorded their well-intentioned efforts. The resulting video piece, “Shan Pipe Band Learns the Star-Spangled Banner,” speaks in squeaks and squawks to the frailty of the U.S.–Pakistani alliance.
Abidi’s video was one of the works in “Hanging Fire,” the first-ever U.S. survey of contemporary Pakistani art, an important show that Chiu organized for the Asia Society Museum in New York in 2009. “Hanging Fire” set the stage for an even more difficult test, according to Vishakha Desai, the former president and CEO of the Asia Society. Bringing a collection of Buddhist artworks from Pakistan to the U.S. in 2011—following the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad that year—required Chiu to enlist the help of Pakistan’s ambassador to the United Nations.
“It looked like the show was going to completely fall apart,” Desai says. “She handled really problematic negotiations very well. She brought the right people to the table. She knows how to not take no for an answer.”
Commissioning skronk video art and negotiating with the U.N. are the kind of résumé line-items that stand out in a museum director search. Desai lists “poise” as another one of Chiu’s admirable qualities. Richard Kurin, the Smithsonian’s undersecretary for History, Art, and Culture—who chaired the committee that selected Chiu, as well as the one that picked her predecessor—highlights her scholarship and fundraising prowess.
Her international perspective is almost certainly another mark in her favor. She is the first non-American director at the Hirshhorn. Chiu was born and raised in Darwin, in Northern Australia, a place that she says is distinguished mostly for how remote it is. (“You can see Indonesia on a clear day,” Chiu says. “I basically grew up on the beach.”) She was educated in Sydney, where she received a Ph.D. in Chinese art, focusing on contemporary work within the Pacific diaspora. There in Sydney she also founded a grassroots contemporary art center (now known as the 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art).
“I think the world’s a much bigger place then maybe we thought of it, 40 years on,” Chiu says.
Desai brought Chiu to the Asia Society Museum (and to the United States) in 2001. “At that point, very, very few people had a broad-gauge interest or expertise in Chinese or Asian contemporary art,” Desai says. Chiu climbed the ranks quickly: She succeeded Desai as the director of the Asia Society Museum in 2004 and was later named the vice president of global art programs, overseeing Asia Society centers in New York, Houston, and Hong Kong.
With Chiu at the helm, “the Hirshhorn has an opportunity to go well beyond where it’s been in the past,” Kurin says.
So far, though, the wider world has had to wait. Administrative minutiae has absorbed Chiu’s attention since she arrived. The Hirshhorn’s board was greatly diminished after the high-profile struggle over the plan devised by Koshalek, her predecessor, to build the so-called Bubble—a temporary inflatable pavilion designed by New York architecture firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro. The Bubble sucked up all the oxygen for other Hirshhorn functions. When Chiu arrived, she says, there was just one staff member left in development.
“My efforts have been to rebuild the capacity, the internal team, and also put the institution on a firm financial footing,” she says. “So much of what we’ve done in the last 10 months has been in some sense invisible to the public, but essential to the Hirshhorn’s future.”
Since starting at the museum, Chiu has filled six senior leadership positions, including a new chief curator (Stéphane Aquin, former curator of contemporary art at the Montreal Museum of Fine Art); director of collections (Sarah Stauderman); and a New York–based director of advancement (Emily Moqtaderi, formerly of the Asia Society). She has also appointed eight new trustees, nearly doubling the size of the board. Somewhere in there, she put together the Shirin Neshat survey (with assistant curator Melissa Ho).
“Looking at where we are 10 months into her tenure, I feel very optimistic about the direction we are going in,” says Dan Sallick, a longtime board member. “We had been through a really difficult time. We lost board members. We lost our director. We lost our chief curator.”
Then again, the Hirshhorn’s been in triage mode for at least the last decade. When former director Olga Viso left the concrete donut for the Walker Art Museum in 2005 after two years, then–chief curator Kerry Brougher stepped up as interim director. He returned to that role again when Koshalek resigned after four years in 2013. (Brougher declined to be interviewed for this story; Koshalek could not be reached.) Long searches for the next director filled the gaps. The Hirshhorn has endured nearly 10 straight years of rebuilding, and yet by the time Chiu arrived, its future was murky.
“Uncertainty goes against the grain of museums,” Chiu says. “We take care of collections.”
The Smithsonian gave Chiu immediate stop-gap support in the form of a $1 million advance of discretionary funds to hire staff and build a fundraising apparatus. The Castle also detailed to the museum Elizabeth Duggal, a Smithsonian veteran who has overseen fundraising campaigns that have raised millions for the National Museum of the American Indian and the National Museum of Natural History. (Duggal was made acting deputy director at the Hirshhorn in June 2014 and took on the role officially in February.)
So with help from the Smithsonian, Chiu was able to stop the bleeding. She has not yet, however, been able to demonstrate to what she means to do with her (reasonably) staffed-up museum. “These things take museum time,” she says, “and then there’s Smithsonian time.”
Chiu and others at the Hirshhorn discuss the museum’s programmatic agenda in two concrete ways. The first is to expand the museum’s global range. The second is to invent new ways to activate the hard architecture of Gordon Bunshaft’s building. Associate curator Evelyn Hankins is assembling a retrospective on the Light and Space artist Robert Irwin in which an immersive scrim installation will dominate part of the museum. Aquin says he dreams of a sound installation that would occupy an entire 360-degree floor of the museum. “There are no white cubes in this building!” Chiu says.
Chiu is an ice skater; when she talks about the Hirshhorn’s next era of exhibitions, she likes to frame it in terms of short program and long program. So far, Washington viewers haven’t seen any of it. She hasn’t taken the ice, if you will.
“A lot of people at the Hirshhorn are curious,” says one former staffer who spoke on condition of anonymity. “I think [Chiu] has hit the ground running, but I don’t think she’s let people know her intentions.”
That comes next. Plenty of Washingtonians will line up to see what she has in store.
Doug Aitken’s “SONG1,” the wrap-around video installation projected onto the facade of the Hirshhorn in 2012, was easily the museum’s most popular program of the last decade—maybe ever—judging by the reaction of crowds, media, and passersby. It always seemed like a piece of unrepeatable magic, a one-time stunt by Aitken (and Koshalek) that would stand out in the city’s collective memory. (Critics didn’t love the piece, by and large, including this one. But we were outnumbered.)
It was only a matter of time before someone decided to show “SONG1” again. But the most revolutionary decision that Chiu and Aquin have made so far may be the way they’re treating “SONG1”: less like a moment to be archived, more like a format to be adopted. Instead of dusting off this one-shot piece every couple of decades, the Hirshhorn means to invite artists to make their own “SONG1s” (so to speak) on an annual or seasonal basis.
The museum has already invited Christian Marclay to do a projection piece on the surface of the Hirshhorn. Marclay is best known for a video piece called “The Clock” (2010)—a 24-hour film comprising scenes of time (as in clock-faces, alarms, watches, etc.) drawn from popular movies. The moments are stitched together sequentially, so that minute by minute, the film scenes line up with real time, making for a narrative that expresses the frenetic energy of morning rush-hour or the eerie lull of dusk, even as it jumps from movie to movie and genre to genre. “The Clock” is a mesmerizing masterpiece that has been shown seemingly in every great American museum except the Hirshhorn. (And it may be joining whatever Marclay creates for the Hirshhorn for 2017, details pending.)
“You’d have queues of people going up and down Independence Avenue,” Aquin says.
Projections are one plank in Chiu’s short program for the Hirshhorn. The first experiment will happen on Friday, during the (newly resumed) “After Hours” concert and party. This one won’t be an artwork, but rather a social-media platform, more in keeping with the museum’s inaugural happy-hour series or its Friday outdoor yoga classes—both big draws over the summer.
Gianni Jetzer, the museum’s curator-at-large, may lead the charge in quickly bringing new contemporary work to the museum, including “Suspended Animations,” an exhibition that opens in February. Jetzer’s hire promises to bring a lot of energy to the Hirshhorn, but perhaps at a cost. His contract for the Hirshhorn is part time; his extra-curricular projects include “Untitled,” an annual project for Switzerland’s Art Basel art fair. There’s at least an appearance of a conflict of interest in these dual roles: Artists who show at a major museum stand to see their prices rise in the marketplace. Chiu says Jetzer “does not benefit financially” from sales at Basel, but he will have to navigate carefully to avoid any “show-and-sell” conflicts. The real risk, however, is that the Hirshhorn will place second for the best artworks.
All the curators expect to have a hand in programming the Hirshhorn’s Sculpture Garden, lobby entrance, and plaza. These pavilions (for lack of a better term) won’t feature dazzling music videos like “SONG1” every time—not by any means. Aquin showed me one challenging, unsettling piece by a group he is working to commission. Suffice it to say that if and when it happens, it won’t be a backdrop for goopy first dates. The Hirshhorn will be serving broccoli to go with the ice cream. “Believe me,” he says of the artists involved, “they’re just mindblowing.”
Chiu and company have only recently turned to the museum’s long program: research-driven shows which can take anywhere from three to five years to assemble. Curators are working on one such show of artworks responding to the Vietnam War as well as a joint project with the Museum of Fine Arts Houston and the Walker exploring Cuban art from 1950 to the present day. The museum’s acquisitions push also reflects its global ambitions: Over the last 10 months, the Hirshhorn has acquired significant works by artists from around the world, including Chung Sang-Hwa, Park Seo-bo, Senga Nengudi, and Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian.
“The Hirshhorn’s always thought of itself with a national imprimatur,” Chiu says. “What we’re thinking about is how to build a national and international reputation.”
Assistant Curator Mika Yoshitake is working on show that will potentially pair work by Giuseppe Penone, an Italian conceptualist artist and sculptor, with Kishio Suga, a like-minded installation artist from Japan. By the sound of it, it’s a show that’s unlike anything we’ve seen from the Hirshhorn over the last decade. Chiu explains that museums can draw lines across the world between artists who work in parallel but also in isolation from one another. “What has come to light is that there is this unusual moment for taking stock of the 20th century in a kind of global approach,” Chiu says.
“We are eager to include a broader world vision into the museum,” Aquin says, who seems to share his director’s approach to planning shows—something that has not always been true of top Hirshhorn brass. “I’m not against monographic exhibitions,” he adds. “They’re important sometimes to come to terms with what an artist has done. We’ll certainly keep on doing them.”
The new dawn at the Hirshhorn has brought a shift in perspective and personnel. It also entails a change in process and approach. If the Hirshhorn can raise funds in New York (or elsewhere) to put on faster, more globally sensitive, more spatially assertive exhibitions in D.C.—then hell, maybe Chiu shouldn’t hesitate to think of D.C. as the Lowest West Side.
“The Hirshhorn is the national museum of modern and contemporary art,” Duggal says. “We’re not just a Washington museum. We’re a museum for the nation and for the world.”
D.C. isn’t New York rich or L.A. rich. There’s no industry native to D.C. that generates mega-philanthropy or blue-chip sales on the scale of Wall Street or Hollywood. But the D.C. metro area is still plenty wealthy, even after sequestration and the budget stalemates that have racked the defense and contracting sectors. Moving the museum’s biggest party out of town means missing out on the chance to cultivate those critical donors.
“A gala does more than just raise the number at the bottom of a spreadsheet,” says Tyler Green, host of the Modern Art Notes podcast and a prickly pear when it comes to museum administration. “A gala provides the institution with an opportunity to build relationships that quite possibly pay off more in year 1 or 5 or 10 than on day 1.”
Money for the arts in D.C. is everywhere, as a matter of fact. Just look to theater: The Studio Theater (to name one) lists hundreds and hundreds of individual supporters on its donor wall, in addition to the usual corporate, government, and foundation sources. Even the Phillips Collection, a museum that has never substantially revised or expanded its mission, managed to secure its financial health at a time when the Hirshhorn found itself struggling and the Corcoran collapsed completely.
“The whole idea that there is something about Washington, D.C., that is different, that you can’t raise money here, is leftover thinking from the 1970s or something,” Green says. Yet while the Hirshhorn’s development office (currently a staff of four) is based at the museum, the director of museum giving (Moqtaderi, formerly of the Asia Society and most recently of the Pratt Institute) works in New York.
Lisa Gold, the director of public engagement at the Hirshhorn—and until recently the director of the Washington Project for the Arts—may be the person to sherpa the museum toward a role that’s more responsive or relevant to the local arts community. Chiu hired Gold in July, making her the Hirshhorn’s latest hire. Her role at the museum is both brand new and not yet set in stone.
“When [Melissa and I] talked, I said, ‘There is a real opportunity to step in after the demise of the Corcoran,’ and we talked a lot about that, and the role that the Hirshhorn could play,” Gold says. “That’s where my strength is, in connecting with people and organizations and artists and collectors—people here.”
There are some local outreach plans in the works. Chiu mentions the museum’s new collaborations with George Washington University and the Goethe-Institut. The Hirshhorn’s partnerships will be few but strong. (“For a staff this size, those one-off events take a lot of time and are not always sustainable,” Chiu says.)
Looking beyond November, another fancy dinner isn’t really what the District needs. (Let’s be real: virtually no one who felt dissed by Chiu’s decision was ever going to be invited in the first place.) The way that Chiu could do right by D.C. is fulfill a real term at the Hirshhorn—to stick around the city (and her Penn Quarter apartment) for at least five years. Some of the roles a Hirshhorn director can and should inhabit will only become apparent once she’s a real resident.
“If you think about Dallas or Denver or Seattle, the directors of the major art museums play a civic role,” Green says. “That is a role that no art museum director has fulfilled [in D.C.] since Carter Brown left the National Gallery [in 1992]. One of the opportunities for a Hirshhorn director is to play that role in Washington. So you won’t have [Mayor] Muriel Bowser undoing deals with kunsthalles that her predecessor made.”
Green refers to Bowser’s decision in February to break a pledge made by former Mayor Vince Gray’s administration to Dani Levinas, an art collector and businessman. The deal granted him the old, historic, and thoroughly historic-preservation-ed out Franklin School to serve as the funky headquarters of the Institute for Contemporary Expression, a would-be contemporary-arts venue. Bowser didn’t see the value in it. Who was here to tell her?
“The Hirshhorn can and should play a role in the community, and I think [the museum] will,” Gold says. “My whole Rolodex is filled with Washington artists, so we’ll see what that leads to.”
It’s probably premature to expect Chiu to lock horns with the mayor before she’s even been at the job for a year. She may never take up the cape and fight City Hall on behalf of the city’s artists. (In fact, the Hirshhorn maintains that any negotiations between the museum and D.C. or Congress must flow through the Castle.) It would be enough, absolutely, for her to do what she’s promised: to find new ways to invite viewers into the Hirshhorn and to seek new ways to connect the museum to the world.
She may be focused globally, but she can’t help but live locally some of the time. So far, her gripes about D.C. sound relatable. “If someone can help me get a table at Rose’s Luxury early on in the evening rather than later on in the evening, that would be very nice,” she says.