Doing Their Own Thing

Robert Smithson's
Robert Smithson's "Gyrostasis" is part of the Hirshhorn's "Gyroscope" show, a reinstallation -- and rethinking -- of the museum's often ignored collection. (By Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)
By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 27, 2005

One of the year's most significant art exhibitions opened this month at the Hirshhorn Museum.

It has as many minor works as masterpieces.

It doesn't focus on a single artist.

It doesn't have a unifying argument, or even much of a subject.

Not one art object had to travel to get there.

The show is called "Gyroscope." But that's really more of a nickname than a normal exhibition title. "Gyroscope" is the Hirshhorn's permanent collection -- the art which the museum already owns and, in theory, cares most about -- rethought, reorganized and reinstalled so that it looks unusually fine and fresh. A few choice sculptures have been pulled from their normal displays, given elegant special-exhibition lighting and paired with their artists' drawings, some of which have hardly ever seen the light of day; the museum's latest acquisitions have been gathered in one place, to show off the art taxpayer money helps support.

" 'Gyroscope' was invented as a device to draw attention back to the collection. And the way to do that was to call it something," says chief curator Kerry Brougher. In recent years, he says, the balance between special exhibitions and the permanent collection has gotten out of whack across the whole museum world. "Gyroscope" was meant to set things straight: For a few months every year or two, it would let a sexy new selection from the permanent collection take over the entire museum, without competition from other curated shows.

The permanent collection "is what we're really about, fundamentally," says Brougher -- the "spine" of any art gallery. But each of the 10 art historians, curators, gallery directors and museum-studies scholars interviewed for this article worried that today's glut of special exhibitions may be close to breaking some institutions' backs. Museums have taken great efforts to tend and build their permanent collections. Most own far more art than they could ever show at any given time. And yet these treasures hardly matter to a generation of art lovers reared on temporary exhibitions.

Museums are looking for remedies.

Not many have done what the Hirshhorn has done -- put the entire exhibition schedule on pause, focusing solely on the permanent collection. A good number, however, are returning our attention to the great art they own.

A few weeks ago, after years of work, the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore reopened the suite of galleries devoted to its impressive Italian art collection. They're now lavishly redecorated to make the artworks sing, and to pull in visitors.

The Walters has gone even further with its Dutch and Flemish holdings. The Flemish pictures are mixed in with a mass of natural and man-made marvels, old and new -- a very early pocket watch, a stuffed alligator, facsimiles of ancient books as well as fancy bugs that you can see up close -- in a "cabinet of curiosities" meant to simulate a 17th-century collector's study. Next door, a smaller Dutch gallery evokes a sitting room from Rembrandt's day, complete with fireplace.

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