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Hirshhorn hopes to create ‘new front door’ to the Mall with a redesigned sculpture garden

A rendering of a redesigned Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden off the Mall. (Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden)
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Seeking to raise its visibility and welcome more visitors, the Hirshhorn Museum plans to redesign its sunken sculpture garden to create an expanded entrance on the Mall and directly connect the artsy oasis to the museum’s main plaza.

“This is an opportunity to create a new front door for the Hirshhorn on the Mall,” said Hirshhorn Board Chairman Dan Sallick. “You have 25 million people walking on the Mall every year and right now our garden is largely invisible.

“More of the entry will be at the grade level of the Mall, so when someone walks by, it will feel natural to enter the space.”

Artist and architect Hiroshi Sugimoto, who redesigned the Hirshhorn’s lobby last year, has created the concept for the ­1½-acre garden, part of Gordon Bunshaft’s celebrated Brutalist design of the Smithsonian’s modern and contemporary art museum.

The design plan, released Monday, reorganizes the garden’s many separate spaces into three key areas — one for the modernist works on view, a second for performances and a third for new installations.

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The new spaces will allow the museum to program more events and showcase more art, officials said.

“The plan recognizes the shifts in art-making in the 40-odd years since we were founded,” said Hirshhorn Director Melissa Chiu. “Many artists create work on a larger scale, and we want to create a space for performance and other interactive work.”

The Smithsonian Museum and Sculpture Garden opened in 1974 to display the collection of donor Joseph H. Hirshhorn. The garden was extensively modified in 1981 by landscape architect Lester Collins.

The Hirshhorn’s board authorized the museum to move forward with the redesign at a meeting earlier this month. The cost is being determined, but Chiu said it would be funded by a combination of federal dollars and private donations. 

The museum will begin a required community review of the plan in the coming weeks, and it must be submitted to the city’s design boards for approval. In 2016, the Hirshhorn was deemed eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. which means historical-preservation regulations must be ­addressed.

Other renovations and updates to the Hirshhorn — including the possibility of additional  underground gallery space — are part of the Smithsonian’s disputed master plan for the south Mall from Bjarke Ingels Group. The 20-year, $2 billion project is years off, and, if and when it does begin, it will first focus on restoration of the Smithsonian’s historical administration building, known as the Castle. 

“We don’t see this as in competition or in conflict with [the master plan] at all,” Chiu said. “We see it as complementary.”  

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In addition to a new entrance, Sugimoto’s design provides accessible entries on the north and south sides of the garden and reopens a tunnel under Jefferson Drive to the Hirshhorn’s main plaza.

“We wanted to look carefully at the garden and make it just as active as the museum and fully draw visitors,” Chiu said. 

Creating space for performances and new work is another goal, Sallick said.

“People don’t realize that the Hirshhorn’s 20th-century sculpture collection is one of the best in the United States,” he said. “We are trying to reframe the collection by showing it alongside new work from 21st-century artists. . . . We’re looking at the entire space as a playground for modern and contemporary art.”

Sugimoto and his design team at New Material Research Laboratory in Tokyo will work with Yun Architecture in Brooklyn, Quinn Evans and Associates in Washington and landscape architects Rhodeside & Harwell of Alexandria. 

“Bunshaft was inspired by Japanese rock gardens, and Sugimoto is able to recognize some of that early architectural heritage,” Chiu said. “He is familiar with the building, with the intentions of the architecture. And as an artist who has shown his work around the world, he knows what makes good exhibition space.” 

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