Just months into her tenure, Hirshhorn Museum Director Melissa Chiu gambled that a splashy 40th-anniversary gala with A-list artists would attract attention — and much-needed money — to the struggling institution.
Chiu’s bet paid off: The anniversary party Nov. 9 will offer an elegant dinner, a premiere by Theaster Gates and the Black Monks of Mississippi, and a 400-person guest list that includes dozens of contemporary art’s shining stars, including Sam Gilliam, Anish Kapoor, Jeff Koons, Marina Abramovic, Julie Mehretu, Chuck Close and Martin Puryear.
Perhaps more important, it will add $1.55 million to the coffers of the modern art museum, which is part of the Smithsonian Institution — an amount several times greater than the take from any previous fundraising gala.
What Chiu didn’t count on was the backlash for having the celebration at 4 World Trade Center in Manhattan, not in Washington. In that way, the gala is symbolic of Chiu’s 13-month tenure. While some grumble that she spends too much time in New York — the epicenter of the contemporary art world — they can’t argue about the gains she has made to restore the Hirshhorn’s reputation and rebuild its shaky finances.
“The way I see it is all programming is local. The money [from the gala] goes for yoga and Happy Hour at the Hirshhorn and After Hours and exhibitions, and all of that is for the audience here,” said Chiu, 43. “It made sense for us to go to New York, at a time when the contemporary art world is focused on New York; the auctions are going on at that time.”
“I have no regrets,” she added.
Tom Freudenheim, a former assistant secretary for museums at the Smithsonian, was among those who questioned the decision to celebrate an important milestone in New York.
“I’m skeptical about the message that in order to succeed in the world of modern and contemporary art, you have to function in New York,” he told The Washington Post in August.
The New York gala underscores the deep-rooted tension of running an art museum with national aspirations. As the head of a local museum, Chiu is expected to attend local events and champion local artists. But as the director of a national modern art institution, she needs to cultivate relationships across the country — and especially in New York, which is dense with dealers, donors and artists. Focus on the former and she risks missing out on substantial donations. Pay attention to the latter and she risks being seen as uncommitted to the home team.
Chiu said she had to pick her priorities.
“I would characterize my first year as doing all the tough foundational work that is largely invisible to the public,” Chiu said, referring to staff and board recruitment, as well as fundraising. Unfortunately, that work meant she was largely invisible in Washington, too.
When Chiu arrived in Washington on Sept. 29, 2014, after 10 years as museum director and senior vice president for the Asia Society in New York, the Hirshhorn was recovering from the resignation of director Richard Koshalek in 2013. His departure followed the board’s failure to move forward on the Bubble, a seasonal inflatable structure. The Bubble divided the board, and when the board finally decided to cancel the project, many members resigned. Fundraising stalled, and programs were cut because there was no money to support them. Things were so bad that the Smithsonian administration lent the museum $1 million to help Chiu start the rebuilding.
“We knew we had to ramp it up, and very quickly,” Chiu said. “These months have been spent trying to get people as excited about the Hirshhorn as I am.”
She has traveled between New York and Washington frequently to accomplish that goal. In her first 11 months on the job, Chiu took 58 one-way flights between New York and Washington, according to travel records provided by the Smithsonian at the request of The Post. (She enjoys the government rate: a $132 round trip.) Add her national and international jaunts — to Los Angeles, Tehran, Tokyo and a host of other cities — and Chiu spent more days out of Washington than she did in the District.
Chiu has spent a part of almost every week in New York, attending opening receptions at the Whitney and Guggenheim museums and a half-dozen A-list private galleries, hosting tours of Chelsea galleries and the Armory Show, visiting artists and courting donors.
She is not as visible in Washington. Chiu’s calendar shows that she spent an average of 9.5 days a month in Washington from October 2014 through August. In May, she was in the District 3.5 days. She was not among the 800 cultural leaders and Smithsonian employees at the installation of David J. Skorton as the new secretary of the Smithsonian in October, nor was she at his smaller welcoming cocktail party in September.
Chiu says New York offers bigger bucks, and the numbers prove her right. Chiu raised $3.2 million for fiscal year 2015, up from about $2 million the previous year. In addition, last month she announced a record-setting $2 million gift from trustee Joleen Julis and husband, Mitch, co-founder of Los Angeles-based hedge fund Canyon Capital Advisors.
“I don’t fault her for going for where she thinks the money is,” said Jack Rasmussen, director and curator of the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center. “I think the problem is perception. You also need to establish your credibility here. You can’t work Washington from New York.”
Chiu has replenished the board, recruiting 12 new members and bringing total membership to 21. Only one of the 12, Marcus Brauchli, a former executive editor of The Post, is local. In all, seven reside in the Washington area; 14 live elsewhere in the country and around the world.
She also has scored several artistic coups, including the widely praised exhibit of works by Shirin Neshat and a commission from Los Angeles artist Mark Bradford. An exhibition focused on Robert Irwin is planned for the spring.
Chiu stumbled through a docent revolt in the early weeks of her tenure, and although she has expanded the museum’s staff, she allows three high-profile officials — including a chief fundraiser, the gala manager and a curator — to work in Manhattan. Some museum workers in Washington say they feel overlooked as a result. “She’s never here,” said one, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in fear of reprisal.
Supporters said that they understand her strategy.
“Museums function in a show-business economy, not an academic economy,” said David Ross, former head of the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan.
“It’s deeply competitive. She’s just trying to suck some money out of New York for Washington,” said Ross, who conceded that he wouldn’t have tried such a move when he ran the Boston museum. “I think people need to get over a certain kind of parochialism.”
The fact that Chiu hasn’t yet moved her family to Washington probably contributes to some of the tension, said Richard Kurin, Smithsonian undersecretary for history, art and culture, who led the search committee that hired Chiu. The Smithsonian put no firm timetable on her relocation, Kurin said. Chiu keeps an apartment in Washington, but she said a permanent move is taking longer than expected because of its effect on her husband and daughter. She is researching local schools for her daughter, who will enter kindergarten next fall.
“If this were somebody who’s coasting, who’s using a job in Washington to have a good life in New York, that would be a different story,” Kurin said. “I think as she relocates her family, and I think that will happen . . . a lot of this will go away.”
Several board members say that Chiu’s performance has exceeded their expectations and that the criticism of her is unfounded.
“Being a museum director in the 21st century is not a desk job. I think it requires you to be around the world at all times,” said trustee Dan Sallick, who joined the board in 2011. “What we asked her to come and do is take a museum that has had a difficult couple of years and turn it around.”