Hirshhorn Museum selects Melissa Chiu to be new director

The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden has named Melissa Chiu, veteran director and senior vice president for global arts and cultural programs for the Asia Society Museum in New York, as its new director.

The Australian-born Chiu, 42, who will assume the position Sept. 29, succeeds former director Richard Koshalek, whose tenure was marked by controversy over funding for his signature Seasonal Inflatable Structure proposal. He announced his resignation a year ago.

After years of dissension at the Hirshhorn that included the loss of several board members, the announcement of Chiu’s hiring marks the first part of a reset. Chiu will hire a chief curator to replace Kerry Brougher, who served as interim director until last month.

“Much of my work over the last 20 years has been in the modern contemporary art world,” Chiu said by phone from New York. “I was able to really hone my experience in terms of embarking on a program that had a global imprint. Not only do we do a lot of work in Asia, but also we have buildings in Houston and Hong Kong.”

“Melissa really fits the bill here,” said Smithsonian Undersecretary Richard Kurin, who chairs the search committee. “Melissa comes from Australia, she’s of Asian descent and has dealt with the arts of the whole Asian continent, stretching halfway around the world and through the Pacific. The idea is she could help the Hirshhorn really have a global impact.”


Melissa Chiu. (Ashley Gilbertson)

In terms of management, she has worked with “private donors, board members, and many other countries,” and has succeeded in fundraising, Kurin said.

Chiu has served as the director of the Asia Society Museum since 2004, and was curator for contemporary Asian and Asian American art prior to that, launching a collection after a $1.5 million gift from a single benefactor. Her focus has been on expanding the presentation of contemporary art while building a photography and video collection, as well as acquiring works by Nam June Paik, Yoko Ono, Mariko Mori and Yang Fudong.

“The Hirshhorn has this incredible long, storied history, and has an amazing collection and [has] done some really groundbreaking exhibitions,” Chiu said. “My interest is really taking it to the next step.

“A lot of my work over that last few years has been thinking through and imagining what a museum could be in the 21st century,” she said. “And so I think the Hirshhorn is perfectly placed — not just physically, being on the Mall in Washington, but also philosophically, as a museum devoted to thinking about new art, modern and contemporary art, and thinking through new ideas, because we’re at a great period of innovation in the country.”

Chiu’s hiring comes not long after the March announcement of a new secretary of the Smithsonian, David J. Skorton.

After the years-long debate and distraction over the $16 million plan for the Seasonal Inflatable Structure, known as “the Bubble” ended with the proposal being scrapped, Hirshhorn officials declared a refocus on art and infrastructure. In 2012, the museum staged groundbreaking exhibitions by Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei and Barbara Kruger, as well as the multimedia piece “Song 1” by Doug Aitken, which was projected onto the side of the building. In December, the museum will begin a $1 million renovation of its third floor.

Chiu will oversee a staff of 50 and an international modern and contemporary collection of nearly 12,000 paintings, sculptures, photographs.

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