In 2002, the Scottish artist Douglas Gordon brought a four-year-old Indian elephant named Minnie into Manhattan. “Play Dead; Real Time” is the resulting video, made at a blue-chip art gallery on 24th Street in Chelsea. The camera circles Minnie as she lays down, “plays dead,” then stands up again in the pristine white-cube space. “You can imagine the sight of two Scotsmen leading an elephant down 11th Avenue at 2 in the morning,” Gordon told the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art years later in an interview about putting the piece together.

What might have been even harder to imagine at the time was seeing the elephant inside a museum on the National Mall at 2 in the morning—but it didn’t take long for that to pass. “Play Dead; Real Time” made its U.S. museum debut at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in February 2004 as a projection shown as part of a midcareer survey on Gordon’s work. In conjunction with a screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, slowed down to fill an entire 24 hours, the Hirshhorn opened its doors all night long.

Screening such morbid work in the witching hours made the Hirshhorn the cleverest stop on Gordon’s international tour. For District artists and contemporary-art lovers, the show occurred during a special moment. The Gordon exhibit opened just weeks after sculptor Dan Steinhilber, one of D.C.’s favorite sons, closed a solo show as part of the Hirshhorn’s “Directions” series. The “24-Hour Access” party anticipated the wave of museum parties to come, from the Art After Dark parties at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York to the Hirshhorn’s own After Hours series. And 2004 was the year that many of the area’s premier art galleries moved from rowhouses in Dupont Circle and strips in Georgetown into spaces along 14th Street NW.

So when Olga Viso was named the director of the Hirshhorn in 2005, it felt as though something was stirring in the D.C. art scene. Viso had climbed the ranks after joining the museum in 1995 as an associate curator. Then, in 2007, just two years after taking the helm, she was out, scooped up by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, where she is still director. The Hirshhorn named her successor, Richard Koshalek, in 2009. Just four years later, he is out, too.

The timing of the Hirshhorn’s latest hangover couldn’t be worse. Koshalek’s resignation, reported first by Washington City Paper last week, comes at a very different moment for D.C. The gentrification of 14th Street NW has come full circle, squeezing out several of the art galleries that sparked its transformation as a vibrant commercial corridor. Some have landed on top—the proprietors of Trinidad’s Connersmith gallery are two of the people behind the thriving (e)merge Art Fair—but for many galleries, space is a growing worry.

Also technically unclear is the fate of Koshalek’s signature project: the seasonal inflatable structure, also called the Bloomberg Balloon and colloquially known as the Bubble. A vote last week on the project’s future was inconclusive, with six trustees voting for it and six voting against. (Another vote in favor emerged over the holiday weekend, nudging the pro column to seven.) Koshalek resigned immediately afterward. While the Smithsonian Institution could still choose to carry out Koshalek’s vision, all signs suggest that the Bubble is kaput. Secretary of the Smithsonian G. Wayne Clough will deliver a verdict on June 24, Koshalek says.

“The Bubble, if it doesn’t happen, I personally don’t see it as a failure,” Koshalek says this week. “I see it as: I tried. I thought it was the right idea for this city.”

What’s certainly gone is Koshalek’s often controversial conception of a Hirshhorn that is attention-grabbing and disruptive, with projects scaled to monumental size. “This is the beginning of 10 big things,” Koshalek said on the opening night of last spring’s massive “SONG 1” projection, “and we’re going to land them here at the Hirshhorn like planes at LAX.” Koshalek also managed to land a Barbara Kruger text installation in the museum’s basement, but he’ll take his other ambitions with him when he leaves the museum. Koshalek says he also hoped to transform the museum’s lobby into an education center and greenlight another project involving sculptor Richard Serra.

“I think the idea is suitcase-able,” Koshalek says, describing the Bubble—a work of temporary architecture encompassing debate, policy, art, and education (and event rentals). “I won’t see it as a failure. I’ll try again.”

It is hard to envision the Hirshhorn finding a director with more razzle-dazzle anywhere. For the second time in a decade, one of the nation’s best art museums must concede defeat, following the departure of another ambitious leader whose stint was too short to leave much of a mark on the place—but whose exit leaves it feeling drained.

But this time, a setback may reinforce the notion that the National Mall—that Washington—is not a place for ambitious architecture. It gets worse. Recent changes to the leadership structure at the Smithsonian Institution raise another question: whether it is a place for ambitious art, either.

Perhaps Koshalek should have pursued his plan to build a monumental Serra sculpture in the museum’s courtyard sooner. While he hasn’t always caught on with art critics and his peers in the Smithsonian Castle, he at least works well with artists.

Koshalek succeeded in moving the Hirshhorn’s bookstore to its basement, though not with Aitken, the artist he first asked to do the job. Aitken pitched an oculus that would send a shaft of daylight through a mirrored well into the basement, but after he got to know the Hirshhorn space, he decided to project light on the outside of the building instead.

For “SONG1,” Doug Aitken turned the Gordon Bunshaft–designed concrete donut into a cylindrical movie screen. Returning his attention to the basement, Koshalek invited Kruger to install all-over text in wrapping-paper fashion on the basement’s walls, ceiling, and floor. Both of these efforts doubled as acquisitions for the museum.

In other words, Koshalek set about renovating the Hirshhorn and tapped artists to do it. It’s hard to say whether he was the building’s biggest fan or its most effective critic, but with projects like “SONG1,” there’s no question that he turned out a structure that the late New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable called “born-dead, neo-penitentiary modern” after it opened in 1974.

The Smithsonian’s report on the Bubble

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By inviting the New York firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro to take a shot at the Hirshhorn, Koshalek was building upon this scheme to curate, remix, and overhaul the Hirshhorn from the basement up. It may have been too much for critics to bear when it was announced in 2009, especially those not thrilled with the maddening trend of sensationalist art stunts that has taken over the world’s museums. (At the end of April, in Hong Kong, a monumental inflatable sculpture of a turd by artist Paul McCarthy deflated, providing all the symbolism a critic of contemporary-art sensationalism could ever hope for.)

The Bubble is certainly one of those stunts. Koshalek and Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s Liz Diller conceived of it as temporary venue that would be inflated several times a year—one that would harness the energy of the Aspen Ideas Festival or the TED Conferences and rally the city’s brain trusts and think tanks inside one big tent (literally). A Smithsonian Institution report indicates that stakeholders projected a 10-year lifespan for the project.

An optimist might see the Bubble as an extension of social practice art, a movement that blurs art making, activism, debate, and journalism. Others have criticized the Bubble’s programming as Koshalek has described it as inappropriate for the Hirshhorn. In October 2012, to coincide with an Ai Weiwei retrospective, the Hirshhorn assembled Johann Jacobs Museum founder Roger Buergel, Columbia University professor Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, and former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski for a panel on art and social change. While it’s only a hint of what Koshalek had in mind for the Bubble, it’s not much to brag on.

Although the Bubble would be temporary, to pay for it, Koshalek couldn’t exploit the loophole that enabled him to acquire a Doug Aitken or Barbara Kruger piece and simultaneously renovate the basement through the acquisitions fund. The money would need to come from somewhere, and in perpetuity: Even assuming the Hirshhorn could raise the relatively small sum of $15 million required to build the thing, money would be needed annually for inflating, storing, and staffing the Bubble.

When it came time for the pragmatists to look at the books, Richard Kurin, the undersecretary for history, art, and culture at the Smithsonian, assembled a four-person task force to price out scenarios, according to the Washington Post, which first published details from a leaked copy of the task force’s April report. The Smithsonian examined three schemes for the Bubble: Koshalek’s vision of a “Center for Creative Dialogue” (losing $1.4 million per year); as a special-events venue (losing $450,000); and a public program venue (losing $960,000 per year).

A response from the Hirshhorn obtained by City Paper rejects several conclusions of the Smithsonian report. The confidential memo—dated May 15 and signed by Koshalek, acting Hirshhorn board chair Constance Caplan, board treasurer and Bubble committee chair Paul C. Schorr, and Hirshhorn consultant Erica Clark—notes that fundraising activities have garnered another $2 million toward the Bubble’s construction. (A person familiar with the board’s deliberations says that one trustee has pledged a separate $1 million gift.) Overall, the Hirshhorn now claims to have secured commitments of about $11 million toward the $15.5 million construction and initial operation costs, including more than $1 million from Bloomberg LP, which secured the right to call it the “Bloomberg Balloon.”

The Hirshhorn memo trumpets the Bubble’s supporters, noting that the project was unanimously approved by the National Capital Planning Commission and the U.S. Commission on Fine Arts, before rejecting the Smithsonian report as possessing “questionable validity vis-à-vis a professional commissioned study.” The Hirshhorn blasts Kurin’s team for even considering the second and third scenarios—the Bubble sans the Center for Creative Dialogue—writing off these options as nonstarters.

The reports split over the math: Koshalek’s team projects corporate sponsorship figures of $500,000 annually while Kurin’s team figures on $300,000, for example. All told, the Hirshhorn predicts annual revenue of more than $2 million, whereas the Smithsonian taskforce pegs this figure at $1.6 million.

The biggest division concerns installation costs. The Smithsonian report puts this figure as $958,000 per year, assuming annual Bubble events. The Hirshhorn says the first two years of installation costs are included in the building costs—meaning that it would garner a modest profit for the first two years, based on Hirshhorn numbers—and that, for unexplained reasons, the near–million dollar figure for inflating and storing the Bubble would drop over time.

Even as new numbers come to light, it’s unclear who would take up the cause now that Koshalek has announced that he’s leaving (at a date still being negotiated). Clough and Kurin declined to be interviewed for this story. But for his part, Koshalek pegs Clough—who will make the final call next month—as a Bubble fan.

“He has been extraordinary in his encouragement and his commitment for the Seasonable Inflatable Structure, and I mean that. He saw it as a program connecting the grand challenges,” Koshalek says. “As an engineer, I think he was impressed by the structural dynamics of a balloon structure that is the same height as the great hall of the Library of Congress.”

The Bubble has few peers in the world of architecture. The High Line, the most widely known project by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, has transformed west Manhattan since its opening in 2009. With its best designs, the firm takes existing infrastructure and complements it with a light but bold touch—turning an abandoned elevated track into a park and promenade, say, or turning a concrete donut-shaped museum into a Brutalist belt for a balloon.

The project has too many peers, though, in the world of art: the slide that Carsten Höller built through the New Museum; the stretch of the Arkansas River that Christo and Jeanne-Claude proposed to wrap; the block-sized organ that Tim Hawkinson erected for the Whitney Museum of American Art; the 340-ton boulder that Michael Heizer plopped in front of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; one of every three exhibitions at the Guggenheim. The Princeton art theorist Hal Foster described this crisis of scale in 2011 in his book The Art–Architecture Complex as an inevitable consequence of globalization.

But the Bubble’s only true sibling is a home that opened on the grounds of the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit in May. There’s nothing of note about the house’s architecture: It’s a recreation of the home that artist Mike Kelley grew up in, a sculpture modeled after the tract housing occupied by workers from the Big Three auto companies for generations. It looks necessarily odd as a pavilion at MOCAD.

No doubt a personal artwork—the last that Kelley completed before he committed suicide last year—“Mobile Homestead” captures what’s happening in Detroit in a canny way. Facing a very real threat of bankruptcy, the city remains eager for artists and so-called creatives to help build out its urban core by renting or buying its cheap vacant homes. Kelley, instead, built a cheap vacant home as an artwork and moved it downtown.

The house is not exactly vacant: The ground floor is programmed by MOCAD’s Department of Education and Public Engagement, and it is available to the public for many purposes, as long as they don’t involve showing museum art. Detroiters can use it to spitball concepts for a ballet, shoot a music video, or host a health care forum. Not even MOCAD knows what Detroiters plan to do with it—or if they’ll take to it at all.

The Bubble has more in common with “Mobile Homestead” than with other examples of art-architectural monumentalism. The thing that distinguishes both projects from a deflated pile of poop is that both try to enable the work of others in climates that make cultural work difficult.

Washington’s problems, of course, are the opposite of Detroit’s. Space is limited and unaffordable, as a consequence of the Height Act and the artificial scarcity it imposes on D.C.’s residential and office space. When there is an opportunity to build, it’s rare that projects attract the architectural talent befitting the nation’s capital because new buildings must be squat and square to max out the floor plate under the height cap. Many of the exceptions line two boulevards: Embassy Row and the National Mall. But new nations don’t pop up too often, necessitating a new embassy building. A new museum building is even rarer.

Washington is a doubly difficult place to build because it has so many stakeholders. In a recent editorial for the architecture journal Clog, Ennead Architects discussed how few of its efforts in Washington over the past 15 years have come to completion. (The years-long efforts to restore the 1881 Arts and Industries Building and to complete the underground, 35,000-square-foot Education Center at the Wall for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial are both unfinished.) The editorial praised the diversity of the Mall but described Washington as “one of the most over-regulated cities in the country from the standpoint of architecture and planning.” The editorial continues: “As we have come to learn, in Washington, D.C., there is plenty of money for studies but little money for architecture.”

That could be one motto for the National Mall. One of the most appealing aspects of the Bubble is that it would widen the Hirshhorn’s programming, whatever it might be, without expanding the Hirshhorn’s footprint. With the space on the Mall nearly tapped out, planners and officials at the National Capital Planning Commission, the National Park Service, the U.S. Commission on Fine Arts, and other organizations are looking at ways to rethink Washington and potentially expand the Mall. The commemorative space may eventually extend into Southwest, as the NCPC proceeds with plans to replace and rethink some of the concrete superblock buildings in that quadrant.

Austerity is a kind of regulation that planners and developers need to anticipate, too. Kurin has said that the Hirshhorn must raise private money for the Bubble, emphasizing that it is a “discretionary” project, even though the Smithsonian is currently one of the Bubble’s biggest backers on the books. And what function at a museum isn’t discretionary?

According to one source familiar with the Smithsonian’s internal debate over the Bubble, officials within the Smithsonian Castle have raised the specter of congressional interference. It’s not shocking they’d be wary of the battle taking shape a block away from the Hirshhorn over Frank Gehry’s design for the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial. With good reason, perhaps: One House representative has introduced a bill to scrap Eisenhower’s design and restaff the Eisenhower Memorial Commission. The sequester, too, has ramped up anxieties, with the Smithsonian implementing a hiring freeze and preparing to temporarily shutter some galleries within art museums.

Is the Smithsonian backing down from a fight that doesn’t exist? “If Dillon Ripley were here,” the source says, referring to the eighth Secretary of the Smithsonian, who served from 1964 to 1984, “it would be different. He had no fear of Congress and no fear of the press.”

The Bubble’s best chance may have passed before Richard Koshalek ever stepped foot inside the donut.

Between the tenures of Hirshhorn directors Olga Viso and Koshalek, the Smithsonian Institution implemented a significant change to its operations, one that was little noticed at the time. Viso succeeded former Hirshhorn director Ned Rifkin, who in 2004 was appointed as the Smithsonian’s undersecretary for art. Rifkin stepped down from that post in 2008. At that time, he was the only one of five top-level Smithsonian officials who was appointed to his position; the other top brass were interim appointments, the secretary of the Smithsonian included. (The last secretary, Lawrence M. Small, had stepped down in disgrace amid a scandal regarding his personal spending accounts.) Acting Secretary Cristián Samper—a biologist who is now the president and CEO of the Wildlife Conservation Society—announced Rifkin’s position would be eliminated.

So by the time that the Hirshhorn appointed Koshalek, a controversial but visionary director, the Smithsonian Institution had changed its own staffing in ways that would affect his and every other museum director’s job. Art is, of course, not a small part of what the Smithsonian does: There are 10 museums that deal directly and indirectly with archiving and displaying artworks, not counting the Museum of the Native American Indian, which has stepped up its contemporary-art programming in recent years, or the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opens in 2015. Nevertheless, art, once its own purview, is now one of several duties for Kurin, the undersecretary for history, art, and culture.

The place of art was more than symbolically demoted in 2010. On Nov. 30 of that year, Secretary Clough—a seismologist and president emeritus of the Georgia Institute of Technology who came to Washington in 2008—made the decision to censor a work from the exhibit “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” at the National Portrait Gallery over the objections of its director Martin Sullivan. The decision followed a trumped-up controversy fueled by conservative political activists. Artists, visitors, and even other museums joined the Andy Warhol Foundation and the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation in registering their dissent. Secretary Clough later described the incident as a “fumble.”

There is much more than inflatable architecture at stake with the likely cancellation of the Bubble and the resignation of Richard Koshalek. At the heart of the current crisis is how and whether the Smithsonian as a whole can remain a leading art institution. Inertia is certainly a workable option, but only for so long. Art is changing as rapidly as architecture, and both will come to look badly dated along the National Mall if the Smithsonian can’t keep up.

The Hirshhorn’s response to the Smithsonian’s Bubble report

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To do that, the Smithsonian will need to take a few difficult steps. The Hirshhorn will likely celebrate its 40th anniversary, in 2014, without a director. The next director will want (and need) to outline a compelling vision for the Hirshhorn without spending a dime: If $15 million is too much to ask for a dramatic pavilion by one of the most exciting architecture firms in America, then the Hirshhorn will need a plan for making do. This work will almost certainly fall to the deputy director and chief curator, Kerry Brougher, in the short term, as he held the position between Viso and Koshalek.

Some of that work is the Smithsonian’s to do. The institution must ensure that the interests and priorities of its art museums are reflected at the highest levels. The Smithsonian has already demonstrated the stakes and consequences: Any competent undersecretary for art could have prevented Clough’s “Hide/Seek” fumble.

The more pressing questions are long-term. For the Smithsonian to make the transition from “the nation’s attic,” its old stereotype, to “Seriously Amazing,” the language of its current brand overhaul, the institution has to balance the new (inflatable architecture) with the old (managing the org chart).

Huxtable was far too hard on the Hirshhorn Museum. Some of the best exhibits in the last decade have made great use of the museum’s circular galleries. The unbroken arc of Andy Warhol’s 1978 painting sequence “Shadows,” exhibited in 2011, comes to mind. The Hiroshi Sugimoto survey in 2006 stands out as one of the best Hirshhorn exhibits in the last decade, and I doubt it looked as good at its subsequent stop at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.

There is nothing at the Hirshhorn that needs correcting—its plaza is one of Washington’s great public spaces and requires neither a monumental Serra nor a prophylactic coating to function the way it should. The Bubble was never meant to be a correction. For at least 10 months of every year, it wouldn’t be accessible or on view. During its weeks in bloom, it would complement and contrast the existing Brutalist architecture by utterly reframing it. Architecturally speaking, more designers should adopt this adaptive, revisionist approach to 1970s building stock. More institutions should let them.

The Bubble has been described as an airy foil to the stone and bronze of D.C.’s monuments, memorials, and museums. But the Bubble, as a process, is very much in keeping with the evolution of the National Mall. In Civic Art, a new book on the history of the U.S. Commission on Fine Arts, Secretary Thomas E. Luebke writes about the “great temples of democracy composed within a framed field of green.” Their features are not nearly as uniform as they sometimes appear—but rather are the “conscious creations first of political will, translated through the work of design visionaries who sought to communicate the political ideals of the nation into built form.”

Architecturally, the Bubble represents a suite of ideals: that it is time to build with a focus on reuse, adaptation, and in-fill development; that it is time to re-examine the role and relevance of art and architecture in public life and discourse; that it is time to recognize that such a conversation can be pointed and scholarly but also fun and a little irreverent. It already is—the design alone proves as much.

Arguably, the single-minded focus on the Bubble has also left the Hirshhorn deflated. A winter 2012 internal Smithsonian survey found that Hirshhorn employees ranked their workplace 40 out of 41 different institutes in terms of employee satisfaction: almost dead last. As the museum turns 40, it appears that it won’t be enjoying the milestone so much as weathering it.

Low morale is a serious problem, but if it was the Bubble—a progressive, popular, and relatively inexpensive proposal—that broke the Hirshhorn, then the museum had already been broken. It will be the next director’s job not just to right the ship but to pick up the pieces. If the problem was merely Richard Koshalek’s style, then it will be relatively easy to fix. But if the problem is a structural failure to support contemporary art and progressive architecture at the Smithsonian—expressed as a lack of staffing, funding, and prioritization—then the Hirshhorn is dealing with a catastrophe.

One source at the museum says that the current crisis has even revived the age-old Hirshhorn fantasy about splitting off from the Smithsonian and becoming an adjunct of the National Gallery.

Now there’s a pipe dream.

Photo Illustrations by Jandos Rothstein