Washington has a hard time wrapping its mind around a good idea, especially if that idea emerges from the realms of art and culture. The political mind knows how to parse budgets, assess risk, pass blame and gather influence while shirking responsibility. Ideas that require some measure of faith and hope, that touch on beauty and other essential intangibles, are doomed if left in the hands of bureaucrats.
An internal report about the potential costs of programming at what is known as the Hirshhorn Bubble was leaked last week, and both the curiously insubstantial document and the leak itself suggest the political knives are out for one of the best ideas proposed in Washington in a decade or more. Conceived by Hirshhorn Director Richard Koshalek, and designed by the most culturally attuned architecture firm in America, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the Hirshhorn Bubble would help transform the Mall, enliven the dead precincts of governmental Washington and force our political leaders to confront new ideas about art and culture that are circulating in the wider world but have few advocates and little impact here. It would be good for the Smithsonian, good for the District and good for America.
The Smithsonian seems to know it needs the Bubble, which makes it odd that so little was invested in the April document titled “Hirshhorn Seasonal Inflatable Structure Project Assessment.” Rather than commission an independent report, or hire a respected organization that specializes in assessing projects such as the Bubble, the project was given to four mid-level Smithsonian officials, who specialize in everything but art and culture. It lists only three external consultants (at the Tate Modern, the Aspen Institute and TED). The outsiders are well-chosen, but three is a ludicrously small number of opinions given the importance of the Bubble.
And it is vitally important. The Smithsonian is a large and old institution that exists to do things — teach, study, preserve and provoke — that cannot be done in the marketplace, that will always cost money, and will never have clear, immediate and quantifiable impacts. Like any large university, foundation, cultural organization or the Catholic Church, the greatest dangers it faces are internal: inertia and infighting, the bunker mentality, lack of cooperation and collaboration between its departments and leaders, and, more than all others, nihilism. When a cultural institution doesn’t actually believe in its mission, succumbs to fatalism and doubt, and thinks only about survival, then it is merely a husk, and deserves its obsolescence and demise.
At various times since the Bubble idea was announced in 2009, the Smithsonian leadership has supported the idea, which fits neatly with the broad institutional priorities set out by Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough. The Castle has even dedicated a $4 million grant toward its development. That’s no surprise. The Bubble, when inflated in the circular courtyard of the Hirshhorn, would call attention to the organization in a dramatic way, offer space for its various constituencies to meet and think seriously about questions larger than policy or politics, and consolidate the remarkable accomplishments of Koshalek’s tenure atop the Hirshhorn. Since he arrived in 2009, Koshalek has brought in new audiences, increased attendance and attracted worldwide recognition for projects such as last year’s highly successful “Song 1” which turned the building’s exterior into a 360-degree video screen for a few weeks during cherry blossom season.
Washington is still struggling with its identity, still growing as a cultural city and is only just beginning to engage with the larger cultural and artistic world. Washington, we are told, is not Paris or London, where the political capital is also the cultural capital, and the two worlds commingle to mutual benefit. But with leadership, and investment, it could yet be relevant as a hub for ideas and aesthetic exploration. Koshalek is passionate about connecting the Hirshhorn to that larger world, and given his track record, there is every reason to believe that he can do it, that Washington for a few weeks every year would attract the smartest, most challenging, most innovative and engaging minds on the planet.
“If it doesn’t happen in Washington, and I truly believe it should happen here, I’ve had interest from other cities, including New York and Los Angeles,” he says. It wouldn’t be the Bubble, of course, but the programming element, the Center for Creative Dialogue — the very thing the leaked document attempts to put a price tag on — would go elsewhere.
Critics of the Bubble argue that the market for public programs, panels, speeches and conversations is already saturated in Washington, with all its think tanks, advocacy groups and big egos hungry to be heard. The report authors seem sympathetic to that view, yet argue two contradictory things. First, they concede, “This type of arts/culture dialogue does not exist in D.C.” And then they fret about “competition with other SI programs/events.”
The contradiction dissolves if one thinks for a moment about the psychology of institutions. There is indeed a need and desire for serious dialogue about the role of art and culture in American life. The Smithsonian Institution is only addressing that need in a limited, scattered and haphazard way. What is needed is better, more focused, more substantial thinking, in a sustained way, in a place that is inspiring, and with a truly international cast and audience. The Bubble could do all of that, which may be why people seem to fear that it might become competitive with other Smithsonian programs. Is it all about turf?
Let’s hope not. Let’s hope the institution is smarter and better than that. The actual costs of the Bubble, estimated at $15.5 million, are tiny compared with new construction. The programming will certainly cost money it can’t recoup in ticket sales or other revenue. But that’s always the case unless you are screening blockbuster films or presenting Justin Bieber concerts. Budgets are tight, everywhere, which is exactly why the Hirshhorn board should invest in low-cost but high-impact projects.
Greenlighting the Bubble will require an act of faith, in the leadership that proposed it and the architecture firm that has designed it. Both have more than earned the faith already placed in them. More important, it will require faith in the power of ideas and culture, in the proposition that art has something to say, that its voice needs to be heard in Washington, that there are alternatives to our dismal political culture already in circulation, waiting to be heard, transformative in their power.