The approximately 150-foot-tall seasonal inflatable structure, which would cost an estimated $15.5 million, would be inflated during clement months for special events, symposia and programs supporting the Hirshhorn’s exhibition schedule.
Thursday’s vote made it clear that the Smithsonian is at a cultural crossroads, and Clough’s decision will do more than decide the fate of what is officially called the Seasonal Inflatable Structure. It will also pass judgment on Koshalek’s legacy and vision, which was to make the Hirshhorn a more open, engaged and internationally important institution. If Clough kills the project, grave doubts would be raised about whether the Smithsonian can attract a top-tier successor to Koshalek, and whether it is a fit steward for a world-class art museum.
Sending the final decision to Clough, however, underscores the inherent tension between the Hirshhorn and its parent institution. Under Koshalek’s guidance, the museum was positioning itself as daring and risk-taking — qualities not in abundance at the Smithsonian Castle, which manages a portfolio of more traditional museums and cultural and scientific institutions, and which is traditionally hypersensitive to controversy and conflict. If Clough votes down the Bubble, it will send a clear and chilling message to other Smithsonian entities and to anyone who is courted to replace Koshalek.
Even though he announced he will be leaving the Hirshhorn, Koshalek was still strongly supportive of the Bubble idea on Thursday.
“There are very few moments when an institution — even one as great as the Smithsonian — can take a global leadership role in the larger worlds of education and contemporary information exchange,” he said. “You don’t let this opportunity pass you by.”
Clough has earned a reputation atop the Smithsonian for being risk-averse, most notably in late 2010, when he personally intervened to remove material from an exhibition about gay and lesbian portraiture, “Hide/Seek,’’ at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. Overruling respected curators and the museum’s leadership, Clough bowed to political pressure from a handful of conservative legislators and Catholic groups and censored a historic video — a work by David Wojnarowicz — that was deemed by some critics to be offensive to religious sensibilities.
The decision sparked protests from artists and museum professionals around the world, and it raised questions about whether Clough, an engineer who came to the institution from the Georgia Institute of Technology, understood the cultural and artistic side of the Smithsonian’s mission.