A Real Vision in Gray
Straight From L.A., Richard Koshalek Takes Over Hirshhorn With Gusto

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.

As for funding such experimental programs, "If this place could become, as I like to say, an ideas factory -- where ideas matter, and new thinking matters -- then you can find the funding. I actually believe that." The Hirshhorn has an annual budget of about $8 million -- not counting acquisitions, or the costs of security, maintenance and capital improvements that come direct from the Smithsonian. The trick will be to find new sources of money, for projects that head in absolutely new directions.

Institutional decisions, Koshalek says, must have the same originality as the art they are about and have to center on "what the artist wants to do, what the artist needs to do." He remembers an AIDS-themed Karen Finlay show, at MoCA in 1992. It included a painting with the words "God is a Woman" which, he says, lost him backing from "a major oil company." He shrugs it off. "That has to be the case. Otherwise the institution doesn't have the integrity [it needs] to get respect."

The Hirshhorn can never forget that it exists only to foster creativity, he says, and to spread word of it. "It's not a corporation. It is not a corporation. That doesn't mean you don't have to balance the budget. That doesn't mean you don't have to raise money to support what you want to do. All those things are part of it. But the decisions are made by the creative leadership."

Such leadership includes ensuring that the art experience itself retains "a certain purity." Koshalek speaks of getting off the special-exhibitions treadmill and reemphasizing the permanent collection, whose galleries should count as a "sacred space" of peace and quiet at the heart of the museum.

"Dominique [de Menil] talked about this" in Houston in 1987, says Koshalek, "when she said, at the opening of her new museum, 'I'll be very, very happy when the attendance drops down to a number where everybody who does come here is serious and has the ability to concentrate on the work of art.' " Koshalek approves of the thought: "Providing an environment where that can happen without distraction is extremely important." But he also feels that "the public wants and needs information, otherwise they're going to become very apprehensive about what's happening in modern and contemporary art, and they're going to react against it."

He imagines, for instance, that the Hirshhorn lobby could function partly as an education center: a place where visitors can ask questions about the art they're about to see, or have them answered once they've seen it. (He thinks the space, whose main feature is the museum shop, now evokes a corporate atrium. "The bookstore's gonna move, if I have to do it myself!")

Koshalek also has ideas for the Hirshhorn's contacts with experts. He says he's heard concerns about the limited amount of research the museum's harried staff has time to carry out. So he imagines establishing some form of "international research network," with the Hirshhorn at its hub, that would create "a continuous international conversation of scholars, artists, curators from around the world, talking about the current situation, about what artists are doing on a very serious and high level."

These are reassuring words for art lovers who think museums have sometimes become so wrapped up in the entertainment and commercial end of things that they've risked losing their souls. Koshalek himself has spoken of "an eerie emptiness" in today's corporate museums, where growth, for its own sake, can seem the central goal. (The Guggenheim in New York -- and in Bilbao and Venice and Berlin, once in Las Vegas and soon in Abu Dhabi -- came up again and again in interviews as the model of a modern museum gone wrong.) And Koshalek has spoken of his dream of a museum "as a place of refuge from a market-driven world, as a center of contemplation and intellectual scintillation and, above all, as a tribute to individual creativity in a mass-produced era."

Yet such words also sound strange coming from someone once referred to as "the Energizer Bunny, personified" -- and this from Frank Gehry, an architect who, even at 80, is hardly known for his lack of vim. During his time at MoCA, Koshalek turned an institution that barely existed, even on paper, into what Thater calls "the most important contemporary art center in the country, or in the world, even." Koshalek was responsible for an ambitious building program there -- the museum's first home was a police garage renovated by Gehry, now Koshalek's close friend -- and for assembling a substantial collection from scratch. And, of course, he raised the funds for both.

In L.A., Koshalek was known for hanging with the rich and famous, at schmoozoriums like Spago and Michael's. That was partly because he needed to be near the people who have influence and money, so he could hit them up. "Richard doesn't take no for an answer, when it comes to fundraising," says John Baldessari, a veteran conceptual artist who's more or less the dean of the Los Angeles scene. But it's also clear that Koshalek takes some pleasure in the company of stars. De Menil is just "Dominique" to him. When he prepares to quote one of his "dearest friends," he first tells you that he is "a man named Dr. David Baltimore, the Nobel laureate and president of Cal Tech."

Yet Koshalek is also mad about "the creative individual." Thater says that when Koshalek was president of the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, where she's on faculty, he'd invite her to fancy dinners just to watch her say outrageous things to his trustees. In appreciation for all he's done for Los Angeles, Koshalek says, his "good friends" Ellsworth Kelly and Gehry are working on a custom desk for his office at the Hirshhorn. (Although it's hard to know whether those two sit on the artist side of the ledger, or with the celebrities.)

Hill, the Hirshhorn board chairman, says part of Koshalek's appeal to the museum was his belief in contemporary artists -- a central tenet of the Hirshhorn tradition -- and his desire to get them involved in almost every aspect of the institution, from education to building planning, even to what to do with that "eyesore" of a museum shop. "Richard will be able to get these artists to do things they don't even know they want to do." And that, he says, will help spread word of the Hirshhorn. "In terms of a brand, it needs to reach another level. The joke around the Hirshhorn is 'We're a really well-known secret.' "

Koshalek himself is fearlessly immodest. He talks about MoCA's purchase of the radical collection of Count Giuseppe Panza di Biumo, in 1984, as "one of the great acquisitions of all time" -- knowing he's the one who must take credit for it. He likes to mention that he's been invited (twice) to participate in the World Economic Forum. All this may be part of why he was pushed out of the Art Center last year, after a student petition claimed that the ambitious expansion program he developed in his nine years there -- which included plans for a $50 million Gehry structure that has yet to be built-- was really about "the legacy needs of one man."

Yet those who know him say his grand ambitions are not at all about himself. "He actually wants to make things happen, but doesn't want his name all over them," Thater says. "He knows that what he does makes what curators do, and what artists do, possible. . . . He lets people do their jobs, as he does his."

That hands-off leadership style may be one reason his ideas for the Hirshhorn seem modest, even old-fashioned. The Hirshhorn's curators, who already have a fine record, seem in for the same treatment. "He's not the kind of director who'll look at the exhibition program and say 'change this' and 'change that,' " says Kerry Brougher, who worked under Koshalek at MoCA and is now the Hirshhorn's chief curator.

Brougher sums up his hopes for Koshalek: "You can sometimes find a visionary who can't manage a museum. And you can find someone who can run a museum who isn't a visionary. But with Richard you get both."

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