Profile of New Hirshhorn Director Richard Koshalek

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Richard Koshalek, new director of the Hirshhorn Museum -- the Smithsonian's home for modern and contemporary art -- has a reputation as a man who makes change happen. "Richard is a wild man. Awesome, amazing and brilliant. . . . That word visionary does apply to certain people," says Diana Thater, a video artist who's a force on the Los Angeles scene.

If Thater's description is right, Koshalek may face a new challenge at the Hirshhorn. It is one of the most respected, stable, successful museums in a city filled with fine museums. The Hirshhorn has collaborated with heavy-hitting institutions in Paris, Tokyo and New York, and its homegrown shows tour widely. On a busy Mall, it can feel like an art lover's haven. The Hirshhorn is far from broken, which means that the challenge for a change agent such as Koshalek may be to avoid fixing things for the worse.

"Visionary" isn't the word that springs to mind when you first meet Koshalek. Newly installed in the director's suite on the Hirshhorn's fourth floor, he looks like a banker: white hair, conservatively cut; a blue shirt with white collar; tasteful brogues; a standard gray suit from Brooks Brothers. (It's so much his daily uniform, Koshalek has said, that he buys three pairs of pants for every jacket.)

The "vision" tag soon starts to seem more fitting. His talk comes fast, one idea chasing out the next in a string of unfinished thoughts and reminiscences. The 67-year-old chuckles at the memory of guerrilla shows he organized, way back when he was an architecture student at the University of Minnesota, that were so "edgy and controversial" that he refuses to divulge what they were. He also speaks fondly of a 1997 Robert Gober show at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, which came toward the end of Koshalek's 17-year stint as MoCA's director, that he says came so close to blasphemy it had local Catholics marching on the museum.

That kind of radicalism doesn't come through -- yet, at least -- in Koshalek's talk about the Hirshhorn. Just a week into his job, Koshalek (pronounced Ko-SHA-lek) gave a two-hour interview that was more about rebalancing priorities than starting from scratch, more about outreach and education than grand artistic plans.

Koshalek speaks of how "everything this institution does -- everything from the press releases we write, to the brochures we do, to what we put out to the public, to what kind of education program we do -- all have to be on a very high level of seriousness." An idea he comes back to again and again is some kind of three- or four-day educational symposium (details to be determined) that would happen every spring and fall, geared to address both experts and the general public. "Education programs have to be curated in the same way, and with the same seriousness, that you curate an exhibition," he says, more than once. "If you compromise on quality, there's no way you can defend your work."

Although not an art historian himself, he calls "the creation of new knowledge" one of the "core values" that he wants to emphasize at the Hirshhorn. That extends to the exhibition program, which he imagines being tightly focused, without an empty-headed blockbuster in sight. "Never once -- never once -- have I decided on an exhibition because the attendance was going to be phenomenal. Never once. Never."

If anything, given the current economic climate and the cost of major shows, he imagines a series of smaller projects that might re-create a few of modernism's landmark exhibitions, which were often much more modest than today's extravaganzas. He could, for instance, see re-creating a 1965 show in Pasadena, Calif., that helped establish the greatness of Jasper Johns.

J. Tomilson Hill, chairman of the Hirshhorn's board, sees such a creative approach to the "problem" of exhibition financing as typical of Koshalek: He won't give up on shows, or dumb them down, but he'll find ways to do substantial programming that also reduces costs. "The reason we are so thrilled with Richard Koshalek," Hill says, "is that his ideas have traction."

The reason he would want a lot of people in to see a show, Koshalek says, is "not because I want to have high attendance, or high numbers. It's because I believe they deserve to have the opportunity to see the work of these artists, to encourage them to also be creative individuals in their own lives."

Such purist talk is fine for Koshalek's new job, since the Hirshhorn doesn't have an attendance problem: 668,000 people came in 2008. Because the Hirshhorn doesn't charge admission, in fact, more people through the door doesn't help its finances: Bigger crowds simply cost more to handle. And anyone who's been to a show on Vermeer or van Gogh knows that the "artistic experience" treasured by Koshalek is likely to be worse, the more people a museum attracts.

Koshalek says he's less interested in raw numbers than in expanding the range of people that the museum addresses. He can imagine the Hirshhorn using its contacts with contemporary artists to leverage collaborations with opera companies, or theater troupes, or the great historic museums of Washington, so as to appeal to their specialized audiences. "And some of these presentations will draw very few people, and some will draw a large audience," he says.

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