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No question: Doug Aitken‘s SONG 1 is a hit. Last night’s debut at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden saw hundreds of onlookers line up in the late afternoon to find the best spot to see the artist’s video installation at sunset. Many more filed in after the video started. One of the best sights at the installation was the look on the faces of unsuspecting joggers as they passed by, necks craned, slowing and stopping to take in the monumental video. There was no jockeying for position, though, because everywhere offers a good vantage point for seeing the massive, 360-degree video installation.

Not everyone at last night’s special opening saw what they came to see, though. The museum turned dozens of interested viewers away from a public discussion between Aitken and Hirshhorn Deputy Director and Chief Curator Kerry Brougher—as the majority of the seats were reserved for VIPs.

Museum members who have given $500 or more were given first crack at the tickets. According to a museum spokesperson, 200 seats were set aside for VIPs; the museum’s Ring Auditorium seats 272. Inside the auditorium, that meant that all but three back rows of the auditorium were reserved for big-ticket visitors.

The Hirshhorn, of course, is a public museum. Entrance to the museum is free and so are its educational programs, which include the annual James T. Demetrion Lecture (i.e., last night’s talk with Aitken). At least, they usually are. For last year’s lecture with superstar performance artist Marina Abramovic, the museum simply gave away tickets via an Eventbrite registration.

This isn’t the first time the museum has set restrictions on a big public event. Back in 2005, the Hirshhorn hosted a talk by artist Janet Cardiff, who was commissioned for a site-specific sound installation as part of the museum’s “Directions” series. When Cardiff gave a talk about her work, the museum restricted visitors to students bearing IDs, invited guests (including press), and supporters who paid $100 or more—drawing criticism from the Washington Post‘s then-critic Blake Gopnik, art blogger Tyler Green, and me.

Looking back, the Hirshhorn at least gave priority to students as well as donors. Last night’s public lecture felt like a donor event. There’s nothing wrong with a public museum such as the Hirshhorn blowing kisses to its donors. But donor events dressed up as public lectures happen at the expense of the public.

Photo by Alex Baca