Hirshhorn ‘Bubble’ risks operating at a loss, internal Smithsonian report says

(Diller Scofidio + Renfro; Courtesy Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden/ Diller Scofidio + Renfro; Courtesy Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden ) - Design concept sketch of the Bloomburg Bubble at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden by Diller Scofidio + Renfro.

(Diller Scofidio + Renfro; Courtesy Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden/ Diller Scofidio + Renfro; Courtesy Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden ) - Design concept sketch of the Bloomburg Bubble at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden by Diller Scofidio + Renfro.

The Hirshhorn Museum’s proposed Seasonal Inflatable Structure, also known as “the Bubble,” a project announced in 2009 and intended as an architecturally and culturally transformative space on the Mall, would operate at a loss in each of three scenarios examined in an assessment done by the Smithsonian.

The 145-foot-tall structure, which would rise from the center of the Hirshhorn for two months each year to provide program and exhibition space, has faced multiple setbacks, including board members’ resignations, fundraising challenges and postponements. Construction costs, first estimated at about $5 million, were revised to $12.5 million, (excluding storage, installation and de-installation costs) in the assessment, although Smithsonian officials last fall confirmed that costs had grown to more than $15.5 million, but said half of that amount had been raised.

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The report, obtained by The Washington Post, comes little more than a week before a final recommendation on the project is to be made at a Hirshhorn board meeting May 23.

The Bubble had been set to open in 2012. Last summer it was postponed to later this year, and by fall it was pushed back to 2014. It was to be the signature project of Hirshhorn Director Richard Koshalek, who said in an interview last fall that the project would be an arts and culture think tank for Washington and a place “where cultural policy is set.”

“We’ve said from the beginning, and the secretary [G. Wayne Clough] has said it, this is a bold project,” said Richard Kurin, the Smithsonian’s undersecretary for history, art and culture. “We’ve encouraged this, but it has to be raised by private money. In terms of doing that, we’re still trying to raise money for construction of the Inflatable Structure. We’ve been at this for some years. We hope its time has come now, but if not, we look forward to a better time.”

Kurin calls the draft report part of a “deliberative process” with board members and others tweaking it and making suggestions. It is a look at the annual operational costs, and “if we can’t put together the private funding to fabricate, it’s hard to conceive of operating the project,” particularly in a time of overarching austerity, he said.

The four-person team that produced the report, convened by Kurin in January, includes Smithsonian budgeting, programming and events specialists and the architect project manager, Christopher Lethbridge.

They were not asked to give the project a thumbs up or down, Lethbridge said. “We were asked to do some benchmarking and estimate what the cost of the programming would be, so that the board and the museum could set their fundraising goal accordingly.”

Lethbridge confirms the report is a draft but said “the numbers will not change in any way” between now and next week.

“We weren’t interested in providing evidence that would prove that the project couldn’t be done,” Lethbridge said. “I think there’s a lot of enthusiasm for moving forward. If the board feels they can reach those fundraising targets, and I know the museum thinks they can, then the project will move forward.”

As a “Center for Creative Dialogue,” a forum for high-level arts and cultural dialogues akin to those offered by the Aspen Institute or the TED talks and presented as three, three-day conferences, the Bubble would lose roughly $1.4 million a year, most of it in conference expenses and staffing costs, the report estimates. While calling the Bubble idea “compelling” and one that would potentially heighten the Hirshhorn’s visibility, the report concludes there would be “significant impact on current Hirshhorn programming, fundraising and staff.”

In a second scenario, it loses slightly more than $450,000 as a “Special Events Venue,” hosting a dozen daytime events and 20 evening events, with installation and de-installation being the biggest costs. Potential revenue in this scenario was limited by a lack of restroom access and kitchen facilities, which could be added. But this vision was seen as having little connection to the missions of the Hirshhorn or the Smithsonian.

Finally, as a free “Public Program Venue, ” a mix of public dialogues, art installations and performances, the project would lose roughly $960,000 and would affect current Hirshhorn programming, fundraising and staff.

Hirshhorn board members either did not return phone calls or messages, or declined to comment on the project assessment.

The report concludes by raising larger questions about whether Bubble programs could compete in the highly competitive “ideas market,” and the impact of the project’s fundraising on other Hirshhorn exhibits and programs. Last year the Hirshhorn had about 130,000 more visitors than the year before on the heels of hugely successful exhibitions by Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei, Barbara Kruger and the multimedia Song I project by Doug Aitken.

The debate comes at a time when the Smithsonian and other federal institutions are operating under the congressionally mandated across-the-board budget cuts known as the sequester. The $41 million in Smithsonian cuts have closed sections of the Hirshhorn’s third floor, housing some permanent exhibit items, until the end of the fiscal year, Sept. 30.

Uncertainty about the Bubble has affected staff morale, according to the report. And it contextualizes the museum as “facing budgetary challenges, including the erosion of its trust accounts, declining federal appropriations, decreased board giving, and base fundraising results below historical levels.”

The Bubble idea “shows that art is alive on the Mall and that’s a great thing to show,” Kurin said. “All we’re doing is saying, how do we pay the bills to create that experience, and I think it’s a responsible thing to do.” Kurin calls the next week critical in terms of project funding. “Will we be biting off more than we can chew in a risky environment? I think we’re looking for board discussion to help answer that at this time.”

The report lays out serious challenges, Kurin said, but “we’ve had it in the past where somebody comes through and all of a sudden, it changes the game.”

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