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In 2006, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden invited John Baldessari to curate a show in the museum’s basement, drawing from its permanent collection.

They could not have known what terrible things the pioneering conceptual artist would do to it. Baldessari took two of the museum’s most familiar contemporary pieces—Bruce Nauman’s “From Hand to Mouth” and Joseph Beuys“Memory of My Youth in the Mountains”—and stacked them nearly on top of one another. Hanging on the wall just over the Beuys piece, Nauman’s cast arm appeared to be physically reaching into a crevice in Beuys’s mixed-media mountain.

It was the most disturbingly adult thing to ever happen in the museum’s basement. Mind you, this is a space that has housed Ron Mueck’s “Untitled (Big Man)” and other nude works, which the Hirshhorn once squirreled away down there along with the soft notice to visitors that the basement is a venue for the risqué. But Baldessari practically abused Nauman and Beuys, defying best curatorial practices and confounding casual visitors all at once. With that choice, alongside the other oddball juxtapositions in the show, Baldessari employed contemporary art to subvert the Hirshhorn’s mission to educate viewers on contemporary art. Which was, of course, its own lesson about art.

Barbara Kruger’s “Belief+Doubt,” the Hirshhorn’s latest basement project, is a safe one by comparison. The installation fills the surfaces of the lower lobby with massive-type aphorisms—for example, “YOU WANT IT. YOU BUY IT. YOU FORGET IT.”—some of which extend into the newly relocated museum bookstore. Subject, meet critique: Kruger’s anti-consumerist warnings will occupy the same cavity as the museum’s beating commercial heart.

The gift-shop portion of “Belief+Doubt” is currently obscured by construction—it’ll all be on view by Aug. 20—rendering the work, for now, unreviewable. But conceptually, it feels like a soft-peddling of the artist’s work, a safe spectacle with an easy reading. That’s consistent with the approach that appears to be guiding some of the nation’s top museum directors today—in one case, to the dismay of Baldessari and even Kruger herself. That strategy is to give the museum’s visitors the dessert that they want, rather than the vegetables that they need.

The New Jersey–born Kruger has certainly challenged her share of viewers. She is one of the 20th century’s greatest feminist artists, and an important contributor to the fields of text-based art, appropriation, mass communication, corporate critique, and other concerns. Few can boast her accomplishments. At the same time, she established her style confidently and totally in a static-media context, decades before Citizens United and other changes to the establishment put corporate power well out of reach of an informed citizenry.

At one time, Kruger’s work was a call to arms, a countervailing power to offset the messages controlled and disseminated by mass communication. But today, the masses, through communication, have subverted the control of the publications and industries that Kruger skewers—yet power and influence are more concentrated than ever. To limit Kruger’s work to daily dialogue with a museum bookstore, whose commerce is limited to point-of-sale purchases, is to fence in the scope of her interrogation to this familiar world—and to emphasize the futility of her project. Perhaps that’s an appropriate end-game for her work, if a sorry one.

There are no real outstanding questions surrounding Kruger’s career. Her name has been plastered on nearly every big stage the art world has to offer. Over the last 20 years, she’s done public installations like the one she’s bringing to the Hirshhorn for a train platform in France, an amphitheater in North Carolina, and museums everywhere in between. Kruger was given the entire façade of the Venice Biennale in 2005. She is ubiquitous, one of the few contemporary artists in recent decades who could be called a household name. There is no risk in bringing her to the Hirshhorn.

Kruger’s work will do more for the Hirshhorn’s basement than the Hirshhorn can do for Kruger. Over the three years that Kruger’s show is up, her Helvetica Ultra Condensed declarations—rendered against corporatist images, resembling the straightforward print-advertisement culture she critiques—will answer the perennial question of what to do with the Hirshhorn’s space. “What’s next?” seems to dominate the museum’s thinking, especially under Director Richard Koshalek, who joined the Hirshhorn in 2009. His consistent answer appears to be: Make a splash.

Koshalek is not alone, and it is not an answer that artists have swallowed elsewhere. In July, both Kruger and Baldessari resigned as trustees from the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles (where Koshalek was director for 17 years), citing the forced resignation of longtime chief curator Paul Schimmel under new director (and former art dealer) Jeffrey Deitch. Baldessari was the first of the museum’s four artist-trustees to resign, and the fifth trustee to leave since January; Kruger and photographer Catherine Opie stepped down days later, with Ed Ruscha tendering his resignation last month. Not all of the artists went into detail, but Baldessari did, telling the Los Angeles Times that Schimmel’s resignation, as well as Deitch’s plan to bring a show on disco to MOCA, forced his hand.

Koshalek’s in none of the hot water that Deitch is in Los Angeles, where former MOCA chief executive Charles Young has called for Deitch’s ouster. But sometimes it seems like the Hirshhorn’s decision-makers would like to be. The Hirshhorn is increasingly focusing on outsized spectacle over granular investigation, even though it doesn’t face the same challenges that lead other institutions down that path. As a public museum, the Hirshhorn isn’t obligated to post blockbuster attendance numbers (which it does anyway)—and to its credit, it’s never done a lousy show. But in recent years it’s run light on research-oriented programming that stakes new claims or travels wildly. “Suprasensorial,” which was organized by MOCA curator Alma Ruiz and closes this week, is an exhibit of five mini-spectacles.

No question, the Yves Klein retrospective assembled by the Hirshhorn (with the Dia Art Foundation) in 2010 as well as the upcoming Ai Weiwei survey are heaping helpings of broccoli. But these exhibitions were planned years in advance. What Koshalek has pledged is flash—monumentalism in terms of scope and speed.

“This is the beginning of 10 big things, and we’re going to land them here at the Hirshhorn like planes at LAX,” Koshalek told Washington City Paper at the opening of Doug Aitken’s monumental video work “Song 1” this spring. Aitken’s 360-degree installation, projected onto the exterior of the Hirshhorn, did well enough that he’s essentially porting the concept to the Tate Liverpool this fall. But here in Washington, the mesmerizing display became a popular hit on the strength of several subsidies: a classic doo-wop song, an iconic cylindrical building, and famous friends like Beck and Tilda Swinton. It was too big to fail, but it also wasn’t very good—an inspired music video, but not much more than that.

The next big spectacle is planned for 2013, when the seasonal inflatable structure—or the Bloomberg Balloon, as the museum plans to call it—by architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro opens in the museum’s courtyard. (“What for?” is a question that the Hirshhorn will have to answer later.) Another outdoor spectacle could take the form of a new permanent pavilion space built over the museum’s below-grade sculpture garden. The Kruger installation is still more razzle-dazzle.

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with spectacle or monumentalism or ice cream, on the face of it. The architectural firm HWKN’s big, blue, spiky, smog-eating fountain at MoMA PS1 in Queens, N.Y., is utter fun, for example. But so is a wax museum, or The Dark Knight Rises. Museums like the Hirshhorn, for all their newfound efforts to compete in the market for spectacle, can offer up something that AMC or Kings Dominion can’t: a challenge.

Giving one of its 10 big landings to a major feminist icon is a good soft step for the Hirshhorn, and also for the Smithsonian Institution, whose record on showing feminist work is poor. But handing three years of prized real estate over to an artist whose work is so well known is a misstep for the museum—if one that will surely delight viewers. To be sure, a Kruger show is hardly a disco retrospective. But in 2012, it’s also more comforting than confrontational. For perhaps the first time in her career, Kruger is a serving of ice cream—not vegetables.

Photos by Cathy Carver, courtesy Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden