The Hirshhorn balloon expansion: Will art get squeezed out of the picture?

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Hirshhorn's new plans for expansion -- for "in-spansion," we might want to say -- look good. If it ever gets built, the high-design "bubble" in the Hirshhorn's doughnut hole should attract eyes to the structure, and bodies and minds to the institution. Who could ever complain about a space that will foster talk about contemporary art and culture?

But the problem with this project, or with any other grand museum project you could name, is that it risks making activity and action the museum's central goal, with contemplation pushed to dismal second place.

Art museums ought to be about three things: Art. Art. And more art.

They should be so focused on gathering art together and showing it off that there's barely time or room for anything else. That should be how a museum feels to visitors: The art on view should so dominate their experience that all the rest -- the shop, the cafe, the lecture and event schedule, the wall texts and flashy digital "enhancements," the architecture itself -- should fade almost away. If a museum director wanders into his galleries and sees a bunch of people in them looking at a bunch of art (as on any normal day at the Hirshhorn) he should feel he's 95 percent of the way there. Anything else is gravy, worth a passing thought but not a year's worth of meetings and fundraisers. A museum should be more like a library for art than like a cineplex or college campus or shopping mall.

Will the Hirshhorn's new structure send out those kind of art-first vibes? Or will it make such a big impact, each time it gets blown up, that it becomes more of a distraction than anything else? Art historian Alexander Dumbadze, who likes what he's seen of the Diller Scofidio and Renfro bubble, says, "Good architecture can also be seen as a work of art." He's obviously right. But there's a real risk that this one "work" in the Hirshhorn collection could shove aside all the others.

Our culture's already all about splash and flash and Twitter-length attention spans. One of the glories of art is that it resists all that -- can even be an antidote to all that. It rewards slow, serious, long contemplation. It demands it. It barely pays off without it. That's why it's more crucial than ever that museums be extra careful not to provide yet another distraction from the wildly tough job of looking at art.

Since taking the reins at the Hirshhorn, Richard Koshalek has been saying that he wants to put "equal signs" between the museum's collection, its special exhibitions and its "outreach" -- lectures and education and all the stuff that should be going on in the new bubble. But I'm not sure a museum ought to put an equal sign between art and anything else. It should always be a "greater than."

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