The Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden has been without a director for a year, and it has been in turmoil longer than that. It needs first stability, then a quick injection of new energy and drive. The announcement last night that the Australian-born Melissa Chiu will be the museum’s new director may help accomplish both. Chiu will succeed Richard Koshalek, whose passionate advocacy for a Seasonable Inflatable Structure—a temporary “bubble” structure that would have housed programming during the clement months of the year—was rejected by the Smithsonian last June. The drive to make the bubble happen was a consuming passion for Koshalek, and for those on the Hirshhorn’s staff who supported his vision. When it lost support inside the Smithsonian, and the museum’s board faltered, the Hirshhorn was in a quandary. Several board members, including the chair, left, as did Koshalek, and in April the museum’s chief curator, Kerry Brougher, left as well.
That’s a lot of confusion and lingering rancor for a new director to step into, though Brougher’s departure no doubt created an enticing prospect for those still in the running to take on the Hirshhorn job. Chiu arrives able to hire her own top curator, and quickly put her stamp on the museum’s programming. Chiu also comes with a sterling professional reputation, and from an organization, the Asia Society, which has a solid reputation for punching above its weight in the New York cultural scene. Chiu serves as the museum director and senior vice president for Global Arts and Cultural Programs at the Society, and has a distinguished resumé as a scholar and champion of contemporary Asian art. So the Washington art scene may “pivot to Asia” before the current political administration manages to.
That could be exciting, not just because the Asian art world is rich with talent and energy. Although Washington has museums devoted to Asian art (the Freer and Sackler) and African Art, and has had successful recent exhibitions of major figures such as Ai Wei Wei (at the Hirshhorn) and Nam June Paik (at the Smithsonian American Art Museum), we also have a tendency to be rather insular. Chiu belongs to the international art world, a global enterprise which mostly bypasses Washington.
In that sense, she may manage to accomplish some of the things Koshalek hoped to do, but wasn’t given the chance to pursue. The bubble, after all, wasn’t just about an interesting architectural folly on the mall. It was meant to give the Hirshhorn a globally recognizable platform for events, programs, ideas and conversations that would connect the museum with world at large. Chiu comes to the museum with a reputation for doing just that.
But it will be a struggle. The Smithsonian can be intellectually sclerotic, and the Hirshhorn has already run one outsider with unorthodox ideas—Koshalek—out of town. Chiu will need a deft hand to reinvigorate it without also rousing the Smithsonian’s in-house apparatchiks to new levels of resistance.