Hirshhorn Director Olga Viso Will Step Down Next Year

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Olga Viso, director of the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden for the last two years, will leave in January to become director of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

"My heart is in working with contemporary art and artists," Viso said in a phone interview on Tuesday, shortly before a "difficult" meeting to tell the Hirshhorn staff of her departure. She said the job at the Walker, one of the nation's pioneering and most respected centers for contemporary art and culture, came to her as "an incredible opportunity."

"Many of the things that make the Hirshhorn special are the things that make the Walker special," she added. The Walker, however, with programming in both fine and performing arts as well as film, "fosters a cross-fertilization across disciplines" that Viso said she finds particularly attractive.

During her 12 years at the Hirshhorn, first in various curatorial positions, then for two years as deputy director under Ned Rifkin and finally as director, she has had a notable commitment to experimental, even difficult, contemporary art. The landmark retrospective she curated of the late Cuban American artist Ana Mendieta, a longtime interest of Viso's, included images of the artist dragging blood-soaked hands down a wall. Much of Mendieta's work dealt with sexuality and death.

Since becoming the fourth director in the museum's 33-year history, Viso has shifted the Hirshhorn's focus farther away from classic modern art, which the museum also holds in its collection, and toward all the varied forms of contemporary art and creativity.

Performance art has spilled onto the Hirshhorn Plaza, there's been the launch of the new Black Box space dedicated to video art, and contemporary artists have been invited to rethink and rehang the museum's permanent collection. Viso took steps to get Washington area residents, in particular, to share in the excitement.

Curators have consistently described Viso, who recently turned 41, as unusually supportive of their needs and ambitions, and as more committed to art and programming than to the purely administrative aspects of her job. Kerry Brougher, the Hirshhorn's chief curator, spoke of Viso's insistence that the institution needed to do a better job promoting itself and funding its programs. "But whatever happened in those contexts . . . it always came back to 'Okay, but what is this doing for the artist?' " She supported his interest, he added, in "experimental and revisionist programs."

Coming seasons at the Hirshhorn, planned during her tenure, are notable for their lack of easy crowd-pleasers and for a commitment to investigations of some central issues in contemporary art.

An ambitious two-part exhibition called "The Cinema Effect: Illusion, Reality, and the Moving Image," focused on the ways in which contemporary works of art "adapt, challenge or reflect the influence of cinema and its blurring of definitions of fact and fiction," will be filling Hirshhorn galleries for much of 2008. Viso points out that a position on the Mall and free admission helps guarantee a large attendance of something like 700,000 visitors annually -- somewhat more than the Walker has drawn lately -- which freed her and her curators to take greater risks.

Viso's time as director coincided with a particularly troubled period in Smithsonian history, culminating in an accounting scandal that led to the resignation of Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence Small in March. Viso feels she was able to keep momentum going and morale strong at the Hirshhorn "despite the troubles that the Smithsonian has faced." Brougher said she kept the Hirshhorn staff from feeling the effects of those "storms."

Viso said the crucial challenge for the museum's leadership has been, and will be, achieving a successful mix of public and private funding. It can be challenging, she said, to persuade donors to support an institution with a substantial federal subsidy, even if that pays only for the building and basic operating costs. She added that the Walker, as an independent, privately funded museum that charges admission fees -- and which completed an ambitious and widely praised expansion in 2005 -- has a "different dynamic" and therefore fewer challenges of quite this kind.

The one downside of her move, she said, will be leaving behind the rich resources of the Smithsonian and the exchange with colleagues there in so many different fields: "It's like being part of a university," she said.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company