Globule, Globule, Globule: Is the Hirshhorns proposed addition a a turkey?or a reason for thanksgiving? s proposed addition a a turkey?or a reason for thanksgiving? Credit: Images courtesy of Diller Scofidio + Renfro

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This was the year that D.C. art museums decided they wanted to become relevant, topical, and just plain popular. The question of what art museums have to do with contemporary life, and how to convey that relationship to newer, larger audiences, seemed to be first and foremost on the minds of curators and administrators. This was reflected in new programs, panels, and initiatives—extracurricular activities, basically—and in a recent announcement of big physical changes to come for at least one venue on the National Mall.

One of the museums leading the charge was, surprisingly enough, the Phillips Collection. The Phillips in the past has had a rep much more conservative than its current relatively hip aura—which is no doubt thanks to director Dorothy Kosinski’s hiring of contemporary and modern curator Vesela Sretenovic back in January. Once on board, Sretenovic kicked off Intersections, a program in which contemporary artists come to the Phillips to riff on the collection, the architecture, and even the rituals and trappings of the museum experience itself.

The artist collective dBfoundation’s project, this is not that CAFÉ, was the first installment of the program. It was a sort of ongoing Dada-esque performance and installation piece that took up residence in, yes, the museum’s café; the project started in May and is set to finally close up shop on Dec. 30. It was in part tied into the long-running Phillips After Five series; events on the first Thursday of each month involving fake foods, games, and wordplay were all designed for the viewer to participate physically and directly in the realization of the artwork. The idea certainly served as an interesting counterpoint to the collection itself—though founders Duncan and Marjorie Phillips were passionate about European and American modernism, they tended to steer clear of Dada, Surrealism, or any later transgressive art practices descended from the two. Sretenovic brought a big heaping dose of what the museum is missing most.

The National Gallery added a piece of contemporary art to its outdoor sculpture garden for the first time in the program’s 10 years: Brooklyn-based artist Roxy Paine’s Graft is a 16,000-pound stainless-steel piece that appears to be two very different trees spliced together, splitting dramatically from the same trunk. In a park setting as managed and groomed as the National Mall, this sculpture about man’s attempts to impose order and assert dominion over nature is certainly apt.

Inside the building, the NGA installed a powerful new acquisition by Byron Kim: Synechdoche, a 1993 project in which the artist created a grid of 8-by-10-inch tiles—the size of a typical photographic portrait—and painted each one to match the skin tone of a specific person. The tiles are all arranged alphabetically by subjects’ first names—thus creating a piece that appears like some sort of modern, formal color experiment but really reflects quasi-empirical, decidedly unaesthetic methods. And, of course, in November the gallery decided to permanently acquire Leo Villareal’s crowd-pleasing 41,000-LED installation, Multiverse, which activates the concourse between the East and West buildings with flashing, pulsating white lights. Villareal may not have a compelling contemporary argument to make—statements about his work tend either to emphasize aspects like programming or devolve into generalizations about various sorts of cosmic universal goop—but the piece is undeniably engaging, and it activates what is otherwise an odd transitional space in the museum.

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The Hirshhorn stunned everyone this December with its announcement that the building will soon be host to a floppy inflated protuberance—a giant balloon, one end of which will poke out of the hole in the center of Gordon Bunshaft’s brutalist structure; the other will spill out a bit to one side. The 145-foot-tall inflatable addition would serve as a special events space and concert hall and would be deployed for only two months out of the year, remaining in storage the rest of the time. Whether or not the proposed multimillion-dollar blob is actually functional or attractive, it is undeniably a tremendously clever move for recently appointed Hirshhorn Director Richard Koshalek, one that answers the question: How do you undertake a major expansion on the National Mall, permanently altering the exterior of a Smithsonian Institution building, without getting bogged down with, say, the input of the National Capital Planning Commission? Answer: You don’t.

Deploy a big blow-up museum tumor, keep it temporary, and make an end run around all that bureaucracy. Okay, so it seemed like a clever way to make an end run around all that bureaucracy: The National Capital Planning Commission says there’s no difference between a temporary and a permanent structure in the eyes of the law and is pressing for oversight.

So much for the engagement agenda. The disconnect comes when one considers the exhibitions that D.C. museums actually offered this year. These mostly reflected the artworld’s fascination with cranky homebodies, curious characters, and misunderstood geniuses—no interactive cafes or love-ins by the balloon tent to be found. 2009 was a year full of retrospectives for artists who stayed home, keeping their distance from the larger discussions that were shaping life and culture around them. These are artists who seem to suggest that art is necessarily a private experience, meant for those who are sensitive to an extraordinary degree.

At the Phillips in February, it was Giorgio Morandi—a man who waited out some of the most tumultuous years of the first half of the 20th century in his childhood bedroom, painting the same piles of dusty bowls, teapots, and vases over and over, in the same wan colors. Morandi produced a succession of tiny, scruffy still lifes that seemed to violate all commonly held assumptions about successful composition, perspective, and color—yet the pieces speak eloquently to the problems of painting and of seeing and are quietly, elegantly breathtaking. This is connoisseur stuff of the highest order—definitely not relational aesthetics, fluxus, or any of that let’s-all-hold-hands-and-be-the-art stuff.

Add to that the strangely inopportune timing—a larger, unrelated, more highly visible Morandi retrospective appeared at the Met just two months before this one—and this show begins to look like a misfire.

At the Hirshhorn in October, it was Anne Truitt, a local legend who pursued her art career counterintuitively: by staying away from New York and focusing instead on her three children, her daily routines, and the air and atmosphere in her own backyard. Truitt is famous for making pieces that are associated with minimalist art but that are too much about intuitive color choice and personal experience to ever really sit comfortably alongside the work of peers like Donald Judd. She made what amounts to freestanding three-dimensional paintings in which bands and planes of color create subtle contrasts that require careful observation over time, from multiple vantage points.

The show is the penultimate one for assistant curator Kristen Hileman—it seems like Hileman will miss the arrival, if it ever occurs, of what blogger Tyler Green refers to as “the bulbous membrane.” The show is light on scholarship, but it offers plenty of visual pleasure—provided your idea of fun is an isolated, slightly cranky artist whose work is in many ways hermetically sealed. Truitt doesn’t just seem out of touch with contemporary currents in art now; she was remote even at the highest points of her career.

Of course, the disconnect between programming and mission could be explained easily enough: First, there’s the money question. The good news about ephemeral actions or temporary projects like the ones the Phillips Collection has mounted is their comparatively low price tag. Fluxus, in addition to seeming cutting-edge, is cost effective. The Hirshhorn’s temporary bulging protuberance will likely cost several million dollars, but that’s far less than any permanent structure would. Credit a down economy for turning everyone into avant-gardeists.

Add to that the inescapable fact that most museums’ schedules are determined years in advance—and therefore do not reflect the mood of the moment. Public programming and temporary installations, seen this way, amount to museum employees dreaming out loud, letting the audience know how they’re trying to steer the slow-moving ships of institutions.

Some would argue that it’s definitely a good thing that museums move slowly and that institutional memory predominates. Art is to a large extent about judgments that can only be arrived at over decades or centuries, questions of what is or isn’t in the canon, what should or shouldn’t be valued—or even of what the present historical moment means in the context of all that has gone before. This stuff takes time, patience, and caution.

But museums thrive on exchanges of energy, information, and influence. They crave audiences and exist to create a conversation with them. In the case of museums of contemporary art, that conversation should be about what sort of people we are, what sort of historical moment we’re creating together—and what sort of art we all deserve. In 2009, we got a chance to figure out at least a little bit of that.