At Hirshhorn, gallery space below the sculpture garden?

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 6, 2010; C03

The Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden may be more "museum" and less "garden," if current plans for it mature. Richard Koshalek, the Hirshhorn's director, said Tuesday that he's been developing ideas to make the two-headed institution more seamlessly one. According to Koshalek's plan, the 50,000-square-foot garden, already excavated well below grade, would be further dug out, then roofed, to become a huge, open venue for the Hirshhorn's temporary exhibitions.

The sculpture garden itself would be restored, to some extent, on top of the new exhibition hall, but as a much more dynamic venue for temporary sculptural projects. Koshalek refers to it as a "Kunsthalle for sculpture," referring to the temporary exhibition spaces dotted all over Germany, which make even minor cities in that country leaders in displaying current art.

The new sculpture venue would restore life to a space that in recent years has been mostly dormant. Visitors stroll among the garden's plantings (and sculptures) almost by accident, wandering in from the Mall, but serious museumgoers rarely descend into its depths for the contemplation of art. In 2008, the garden installed a major new glass-and-steel pavilion by the important American artist Dan Graham, but it's not clear that even most aficionados know the work is there.

The new sculpture "roof," in contrast, Koshalek says, would be art- and artist-centered, displaying newly commissioned works or works not yet seen outside the studio: "We're not going to build fountains."

The current sculpture garden is due for an expensive renovation anyway, so a full rethink of its function seemed to make sense before any money was spent, Koshalek says.

Given an account of Koshalek's plan, Judy Scott Feldman, who chairs the not-for-profit National Coalition to Save Our Mall, calls it "kind of an intriguing idea." She agrees that the sunken garden hasn't been successful as a public space: "When I see the sculpture garden, I never see anyone down in it." Plans to make it more active, she says, would coincide with her organization's goal of keeping the Mall alive as "a symbol of the vitality of our culture."

The coalition, Feldman says, believes that the Mall's open spaces should be as lively as its museums, and has already suggested allowing more museums' collections to spill out beyond their walls, as has happened at the popular sculpture garden of the National Gallery of Art. At ground level, she says, the dusty, formal Mall is "not a very humanistic environment."

Koshalek cites another major benefit of his plan: It would free the Hirshhorn's main building -- the "doughnut," as he and others call it -- for the display of much more of the museum's large permanent collection. Modern sculptures now buried in the garden might go on display on the doughnut's more prominent plaza.

At the moment, temporary shows and permanent holdings jockey for space and a viewer's attention. Separating the two functions might be a boon to both. (Though there's a risk that splashy temporary shows, in a more distant space, might pull viewers even further from the collection, however much better displayed.)

The Hirshhorn, Koshalek says, can't build up and has no room to expand side-to-side, so this would be its one shot at getting bigger, yet without visibly expanding its footprint. (His other idea for expansion is more temporary: The museum is proceeding with an inflatable "bubble" to fill its doughnut hole for two months a year, housing conferences, idea fests and the occasional art project.)

Over an informal lunch, Koshalek cautioned that any plans for the sculpture garden are merely "an idea in progress," and he has yet to bring them to his board of directors. "We haven't done the feasibility studies yet," he says, so he can't estimate the costs. If funding and Smithsonian approvals come through, he imagines finalizing plans, and perhaps breaking ground, in time for the Hirshhorn's 40th anniversary in 2014.

Koshalek imagines the new sunken exhibition hall, as formulated so far, as wide-open, raw and cheap, on the model of the Temporary Contemporary space that he launched in an old Los Angeles police garage when he was director of the Museum of Contemporary Art there. That space in turn was modeled on artists' industrial lofts and studios. The Hirshhorn's new sunken space "has got to have that kind of openness, that kind of flexibility," Koshalek says. To be properly loftlike, it would also need at least some natural light, but that's a challenge Koshalek feels can be overcome with a clever design.

"The art is the reason the museum exists," Koshalek says, responding with some heat to the suggestion that he's become known for caring more about events and education and all the "extras" of museum life -- including giant inflatable lecture halls -- than for the artworks on display. If cats have been let out of bags when it comes to his new exhibition spaces, it's because he's out to correct that impression.

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