As it approaches 40, Hirshhorn Museum enters a season of refocus and renewal


Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. (Marge Ely)

The decision by Smithsonian officials not to proceed with the Hirshhorn Museum’s Seasonal Inflatable Structure, known as the Bubble, put that years-long focus behind them. Now, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden has begun what officials hope will be a season of refocus and renewal. The Hirshhorn board of trustees, which lost a number of members in the aftermath of the Bubble controversy, has new leadership. The board has a dozen members and is seeking to add to its numbers. The search committee for a director to replace Richard Koshalek, who resigned amid the Bubble controversy, has been named. And the museum’s most ambitious interior renovation begins late this year and is expected to be completed in time for the Hirshhorn’s 40th anniversary commemoration next fall.

New leadership

In July, board chairwoman Constance Caplan, who was unhappy over the Bubble decision, became the seventh member to resign from the board over the past several years. “It would be good to add three or four board members in the next six to nine months,” says Richard Kurin, undersecretary for the Smithsonian.

Elected in July to lead the board were Peggy P. Burnet, chair, of Wayzata, Minn., who serves on the Smithsonian National Board and has been involved with the Walker Art Center for more than two decades; John Pappajohn, vice chair, a Des Moines-based entrepreneur, philanthropist and collector; Jane Lipton Cafritz, secretary, a Washington philanthropist and art patron; and Daniel Sallick, treasurer, co-founder of Home Front Communications, a D.C.-based advertising and communications agency, and contemporary art collector.

The Smithsonian’s search committee for a new Hirshhorn director includes Kurin; four board members; Johnnetta Betsch Cole, director of the National Museum of African Art; Robert Kogod, a member of the Smithsonian Board of Regents; Dorothy Kosinski, director of the Phillips Collection; and Hirshhorn collection manager Susan Lake. Kurin calls the committee, which was named in late September, a serious group “with a good eye for talent, vision and reality.” The committee plans to complete its search by January.

40th anniversary

The Hirshhorn’s 40th anniversary commemoration doesn’t take place until next fall, but the museum is scheduled to begin a major third-floor renovation in December in preparation. The $1 million renovation, using a combination of Smithsonian and Hirshhorn funds, is expected to take about seven months and will close off the third floor. The work includes new lighting and tearing out small walls to “return the space to what architect Gordon Bunshaft originally had in mind, which was a continuous, beautiful curved flow that opened cinematically, like a narrative with flowing space all around,” says Kerry Brougher, chief curator and the acting Hirshhorn director. The space, which now houses early modernist work dating from the beginning of the 20th century, will house a new installation of later works from the ’60s forward, Brougher says. The second floor underwent similar work about five years ago, but this is the museum’s most extensive interior renovation.

Plans for the anniversary include devoting the entire lower-level gallery to small exhibitions that offer in-depth studies of one artist at a time. Among them will be American artist Salvatore Scarpitta, whose work is primarily about transportation and movement. “It’s a name not usually associated with the Hirshhorn, but we’ve just started to collect him,” Brougher says.

The second floor will be devoted to film, video and digital technology in an exhibition tentatively titled “Days of Endless Time,” which features artists pushing back against the fast pace of modern society by urging people to be more contemplative.

Brougher, who says he is glad to be focusing on exhibitions again, declined to comment on whether he has interest in the director’s job.

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