Since her appointment as director of the Hirshhorn in 2014, Melissa Chiu has presided over an astounding renaissance at the Smithsonian contemporary art museum. Thanks to popular and critically acclaimed exhibits like “Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors,” the Hirshhorn has seen a 200 percent increase in visitors since 2014, and the once anemic institution now expects to be among the most visited contemporary art museums in America this year — behind only the Whitney and the Museum of Modern Art. Today, the Hirshhorn celebrated the arrival of its millionth visitor of 2017, marking the first time in 30 years the museum has drawn 1 million guests in a calendar year. To keep the museum the attraction it is, Chiu, who lives in upper Northwest with her 7-year-old daughter, travels the world to network with donors and artists. If she ever does get a day off to hang out in D.C., she’s got about a million ideas.
For me, it’s breakfast at Bakers & Baristas, which is over on Seventh [Street NW]. They do great coffee and their own pastries. Dolcezza also does amazing coffee; their cappuccino is great. They roast their own beans. I’m usually at Dolcezza in the afternoons on weekends, when I can get an affogato, which is their gelato and espresso. You can see how my days are punctuated by coffee.
Something I like to do in the winter is ice skate at the National Gallery of Art sculpture garden. I skated as a child, even though I’m from Australia and I know it’s counterintuitive — it was the only sport I was interested in. I actually competed when I was younger. I still have my skates from when I was 15.
Often I do find myself here [at the Hirshhorn] on the weekend. When we had “Kusama,” I was here every weekend, spending time in the “Obliteration Room,” which was the one with all the dots. And then when we had the Yoko Ono project, “My Mommy Is Beautiful,” I was here a lot with friends who wanted to contribute [to the wall of memories], and then we would go over to the “Wish Tree” in the sculpture garden. It’s great to be here on the weekend because you get a different sort of audience, and it’s helpful to see how people interact with the works.
I like to check in on local galleries and artist-run spaces like Transformer. That’s always a great place to see cutting-edge and local artists. The Katzen Center at American University also shows a lot of local artists.
For dinner, I’d go to Rasika. I like the street food, the appetizers, the spinach — the fried spinach is amazing. Union Market is another great place to try some new food. It’s a casual environment in a different part of the city. I go there pretty often.
I’m also often at the American History Museum and their Spark!Lab. My daughter loves that place. It’s great for kids, and it fosters invention and creativity and all that kind of stuff. It’s like a children’s makers space, but it’s all about new inventions and creativity.
I think in Washington there are so many opportunities for learning in inventive ways. We also like going to the National Zoo. We got to go on a behind-the-scenes tour there and see how much goes into having a living collection like a zoo, a collection of animals that all require different care and feeding and treatment. I always look on and afterwards think about how easy contemporary art is to care for in comparison. (As told to Sadie Dingfelder)
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