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Check out the Hirshhorn Museum’s calendar for 2008. There are a lot of film and video exhibits. There aren’t, however, so many painting or sculpture shows.

Does the Hirshhorn think new media represents the future of fine art? Maybe paintings are passé. Then again, perhaps it’s just that damn loading dock.

For decades, this most basic of art-gallery functions has posed a bit of a problem at the Hirshhorn. Located at the base of a steep ramp on 7th Street and Independence Avenue SW, the dock is difficult for big trucks to navigate. To get there, a truck has to drive down the ramp and make a sharp 90-degree turn, a maneuver that is pretty much impossible for the behemoths delivering art today.

Sometimes art handlers even have to wheel crates containing art across the museum’s garage. Hauling all those priceless pieces is risky. Plus, it can be dangerous for the art handlers. Moving last summer’s Anselm Kiefer show “Heaven and Earth,” was like, well, moving heaven and earth, says Barbara Freund, a registrar at the Hirshhorn. “I think it’s the biggest challenge…to get huge artwork from our trucks.”

Fortunately for the Hirshhorn’s dock jocks, there’s some hope on the horizon. Hirshhorn spokesperson Beth Tuttle says the museum is gearing up for major loading-dock renovations to take place in 2008.

In fact, she says, the museum’s calendar for the next two years was planned with the renovations in mind. In 2007, the Hirshhorn’s “Refract, Reflect, Project” show will highlight works from the museum’s permanent collection. For “Directions,” also in 2007, Mark Handforth will install a large-scale painted aluminum star just outside the museum’s entrance. For the 2008 season, the Hirshhorn is advertising “The Cinema Effect,” featuring films and media installations by Omar Fast, Gary Hill, Isaac Julien, and Steve McQueen. None of these exhibits will put much stress on the museum’s loading dock.

“That’s deliberate, because we knew this was coming up,” Freund says. “It was a clever way to keep our exhibits going without having any large paintings, heavy sculptures, things of that nature.”

Meanwhile, Freund and her colleagues have been knee-deep in designs for a new-look loading dock. It will be covered, higher up, and wider than the one that exists now, Freund says. “We’ll still have the old dock. It’ll be a second bay that the large trucks can back directly up to. It won’t be a perfect fix,” but it will be an improvement, she says. “We’re very much looking forward to it.”

Cheryl Washer, a registrar with the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES), has seen the full spectrum of loading docks. The one at the National Museum of Natural History is nice, she says, because it opens up to a parking lot, making it easy for trucks to pull up to the building. She calls the dock at the National Archives and Records Administration “the most troublesome,” because it has a steep hill.

According to Washer, the problem with many loading docks is that they were built back before art came on trucks and trucks came with 18 wheels. Newer loading docks tend to be made with monster trucks in mind. “The general rule of thumb,” she says, “is the older the museum, the more likely it is to have issues.”

Upon learning of the Hirshhorn’s plans for a new loading dock, Washer offered some expert advice. She says a good loading dock accommodates huge trucks with space to spare, is dedicated solely to art, is covered, and is as invisible as possible. Like any muscle machine, a good loading dock also needs a hefty hydraulic lift. Asked if she was excited about the Hirshhorn’s new hydraulics, Tuttle answered with an enthusiastic yes. “We’re gonna be in better shape against all…criteria at the end of the day,” she says.

—Jessica Gould

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