Smithsonian Announces New Hirshhorn Museum Director

Richard Koshalek plans a global role for the Hirshhorn.
Richard Koshalek plans a global role for the Hirshhorn.
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By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 27, 2009

The Smithsonian Institution yesterday selected Richard Koshalek, former director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, to lead the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

The appointment of Koshalek completes the turnover of leadership among three of the Smithsonian's national art galleries. Besides the Hirshhorn, the National Portrait Gallery and the National Museum of African Art have had new directors appointed within the past year.

Reached in Los Angeles, Koshalek said now is an opportune moment to reposition the Hirshhorn as an international leader in its field because the new administration has acknowledged the role of arts and culture. "This is the perfect time and place in Washington where you have leadership from President Obama, who has an expanded view of the world," Koshalek said. "And I heard [Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton say in a speech that art and culture could be a tool for diplomacy and development."

What that would mean for the Hirshhorn, he hopes, is a expanded role in the global dialogue on contemporary art. "It can be done through convening conferences, for example. The Hirshhorn should commission new research on contemporary art and publish the 'Hirshhorn Papers,' " Koshalek said. He would also like the museum's curatorial staff to work and exchange with curators from across the country to "bring together the thought leaders," and develop new research and exhibitions.

Koshalek, 67, begins his new job in April.

For the past 10 years, Koshalek has been president of the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif. Last year, Koshalek was released from the final year of his contract by the school's board of trustees after protests by student, faculty and alumni over tuition increases and Koshalek's plan to have a Frank Gehry-designed, $50 million library and research center.

During his almost 20 years at the Los Angeles museum, popularly known as MOCA, Koshalek oversaw tremendous growth. In 1980 the museum had no collection, a staff of three and $50,000 in the bank. By the time Koshalek left in 1999, the museum had accumulated 4,000 works and was operated by 75 people. The holdings were built, he explained, by acquiring whole collections. By 1999, the museum had an endowment of nearly $50 million.

The expansion drew worldwide attention. In 1983, Gehry renovated a police vehicle warehouse into the museum's first home, now called the Geffen Contemporary. Three years later, Arata Isozaki designed the museum's permanent home.

"Richard Koshalek has vast experience in both the education and museum worlds," Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough said in a statement yesterday. "His creativity brought modern and contemporary art to bear on issues of the day and will help the museum and the Institution reach broad audiences in technologically and aesthetically exciting ways."

The Hirshhorn, one of the Smithsonian's museums on the Mall, opened in 1974. It developed from the collection of businessman Joseph H. Hirshhorn and now has nearly 12,000 objects. "It has been very carefully expanded. There is something there to build on," Koshalek said.

A native of Wausau, Wis., Koshalek received his bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Minnesota. He worked at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis from 1967 to 1972. After the Walker, he was the assistant director of the Visual Arts program at the National Endowment for the Arts and then was director of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth from 1974 to 1976.

At MOCA, he worked with Kerry Brougher, the Hirshhorn's chief curator, who has been the museum's acting director since December 2007.

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