The normally hushed lobby of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden buzzed with a how-cool-is-this vibe. Well-dressed party-goers holding wineglasses were queued up up behind roped stanchions, waiting to be allowed upstairs. Dense crowds on the second-floor landing forced guests to elbow their way to the entrance of “Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors” and the trippy mirror rooms of the Japanese artist and Instagram sensation.
Nearly 800 guests — including donors, artists, local arts leaders and a Kusama look-alike in a raspberry wig and polka-dot dress — created a festive din of chit-chat and laughter. Inside the darkly lit galleries, Hirshhorn Director Melissa Chiu radiated a graceful calm. Tall and elegant in a purple Mary Katrantzou dress, Chiu, 45, welcomed an endless stream of friends and admirers, her Aussie-accented greetings sweetened with smiles, hugs and air -kisses.
The party marked the opening of the much-anticipated 12-week exhibition, featuring six of Kusama’s mirror rooms and the interactive “Obliteration Room,” where visitors are encouraged to place colored dots on any surface they wish. It took months of work to deliver the exhibition’s fleeting moments of whimsy and wonder to thousands of museumgoers. The Hirshhorn’s crew of 15 installers worked for six weeks on the show, about three times the normal installation period. The museum recruited 100 volunteers to manage the crowds, and it introduced free timed passes to limit the number of visitors entering the gallery and thus help to preserve an intimate experience. Despite extending its hours on Wednesday nights, the museum can’t keep up with demand. Passes for the coming week are snapped up as soon as they become available online — sometimes in less than five minutes.
“It’s much more participatory than passive,” Chiu said later. “Museums are generally set up for more-communal viewing experiences. An exhibit like this, a lot of it is how long people want to spend with the experience. You want to create a moment where people can step away from everyday life.”
The excitement surrounding the exhibition marks a new chapter for the Smithsonian Institution’s 42-year-old museum of modern and contemporary art.
After almost a decade of turmoil, the Hirshhorn is back.
For Chiu, it’s both a triumphant celebration and a forceful refutation of early critics who had questioned her abilities and her commitment to Washington, including an unprecedented decision to hold the Hirshhorn’s annual gala in New York. In “Infinity Mirrors,” she has her first real popular success, with all the social media frenzy and crowd-control headaches that accompany it. After the Kusama exhibit closes on May 14, it will go on a five-city tour, burnishing the Hirshhorn’s reputation at each stop.
But Chiu’s influence goes beyond a single high-profile exhibition or smaller, more permanent changes, such as the opening of a long-sought but elusive coffee shop in the central plaza of the distinctive round building. It can be seen in the roguish Jimmie Durham sculpture — featuring a car crushed by a boulder with a face painted on it as if it were a kid’s pet rock — now parked outside the museum’s southern entrance. Chief curator Stéphane Aquin says the sculpture, a selfie magnet, delivers a dose of fun and elicits many reactions. “They’re excited, thrilled, amazed, puzzled,” he said of visitor response. “It’s magnetic.”
“There was a time I was worried about the Hirshhorn,” Smithsonian acting provost Richard Kurin said. “Melissa has brought the museum back to life, it’s as simple as that.”
Dressed in her signature black, Chiu sits on one of the two black couches in her white office on the museum’s fourth floor. Two computer monitors and two iPhones clutter her desk, and on the walls are works by Cy Twombly and Willem de Kooning, chosen to reflect the strengths of the Hirshhorn’s 12,000-piece collection.
Chiu recalls the challenges she faced upon her arrival in September 2014, when staff morale was terrible, private fundraising almost nonexistent and programming at a standstill.
It was a dark time for a proud institution. The Hirshhorn opened in 1974 after philanthropist and financier Joseph H. Hirshhorn donated his renowned collection to the Smithsonian. The Gordon Bunshaft-designed building has hosted many internationally celebrated exhibitions, including shows focused on Ai Weiwei, Doug Aitken, Louise Bourgeois and Clyfford Still.
But as it came upon its 40th anniversary in 2014, it had hit a “low ebb,” Kurin said. The museum had been without a permanent director for more than a year after the resignation of Richard Koshalek. He left with the collapse of his plan to build a seasonal inflatable structure that would turn the museum’s hollow core into program and exhibition space. Many board members also resigned.
“When the air got let out of that balloon, it was like the air had gone out of the whole institution,” said art collector J. Tomilson Hill, a vice chairman of private equity firm the Blackstone Group, who served as board chairman for eight years. He resigned in 2012, a move he said was intended to trigger Koshalek’s departure.
The museum’s fifth leader in seven years, Chiu received critical early support from Smithsonian officials, who provided a $1 million loan to jump-start programming and assigned veteran manager Elizabeth Duggal to oversee operations. Duggal continues as deputy director.
It was a difficult first year. Chiu appointed Gianni Jetzer as the museum’s curator-at-large based in New York. She focused her burgeoning fundraising effort on the Big Apple, too. To art-world insiders, it was a no-brainer. But for some in Washington, it was unsettling.
Then, in August 2015, she announced that the Hirshhorn would celebrate its 40th anniversary with a gala in New York. The decision was roundly criticized and caused many to question Chiu’s commitment to the Washington art community.
The Washington Post’s art critic, Philip Kennicott, described the plan as “deeply troubling.” “Despite Chiu’s statement ... that she intends no snub to the Washington arts crowd ... it is a snub, and a distressing indication that she doesn’t understand the purpose, the history or the identity of the museum she now leads,” he wrote. Others piled on, too, questioning the symbolism of the move and wondering if, by setting her sights on Manhattan, Chiu was broadcasting her ambitions for her next gig.
Olga Viso, the former Hirshhorn director who leads the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, said the criticism was off the mark.
“There’s no way to be involved in the art world without connecting with Los Angeles and New York and other parts of the world,” said Viso, who also has a curator based in New York.
Chiu points out that the museum netted $1 million from the gala — about four times what a typical D.C. event would raise. It attracted 400 guests outside the museum’s home base, and it generated valuable goodwill for the museum.
“I was able to draw on 15 years of working in New York,” Chiu said. “I was the beneficiary of both the Hirshhorn reputation but also the personal connections and relationships I had built over those years.”
Privately, though, the criticism stung, her friend Athena Robles said. “You would not be human if it didn’t bother you.”
But the criticism also made Chiu feel she “had to prove herself,” Robles added. “She walked into a situation that was very messy. I think she knew what she was getting into.”
Chiu said publicly that regardless of where the money was raised, it would be spent in the District and stuck to her plan to find donors for the programs she envisioned. The results were impressive. In her first two years, Chiu, with the board’s help, raised $11 million from private sources, including $7 million during fiscal year 2016. That compares with $2 million in fiscal 2014, the year before she took over. And it’s almost half of the museum’s annual $15.9 million budget. (That does not include things like maintenance and security, which the Smithsonian pays for.)
This past November, the Hirshhorn hosted a second gala in Manhattan. It didn’t raise as much money as the first one did, but it didn’t generate as much criticism either.
“Sometimes you have people who have vision and people who can execute. In Melissa, you have someone who can do both,” said Daniel Sallick, chairman of the Hirshhorn board. “She’ll set the goal post at the outer edge of everyone’s comfort zone, and we’ll get there.”
Chiu grew up in Darwin, in the Northern Territory of Australia, a coastal area with a tropical climate that is considered the gateway to Asia. Her father is a dentist, her mother a dental nurse. The oldest of four daughters — and two sets of twins — she attended public grammar school and a private Catholic high school. An average student (while her twin earned straight A’s), Chiu said her teachers encouraged her to pursue art. She chose art history and criticism as an undergraduate at the University of Western Sydney because “I thought this was the best way to become a curator,” she explained.
After earning her bachelor’s degree Chiu pursued a master’s in arts administration at the University of New South Wales before returning to Western Sydney for a PhD, with a focus on experimental Chinese art. She joined the Asia Society in New York as a curator, rising to vice president of global arts and cultural programs over a 15-year tenure.
As a manager, she can be tough when she needs to be, colleagues say, but, Robles said, Chiu “has a quiet nature.”
“She is more likely to take things in than be the person to blurt things out. She’s more observant, and sensitive to who she is talking to,” she said.
Chiu spent much of her first year with the Hirshhorn out of the District, flying around the world raising money and planning exhibitions, and traveling to New York, where she lived with her husband, Benjamin Genocchio, and 6-year-old daughter, Coco. In the fall, she and Coco moved into a house in Northwest Washington. Genocchio is still based in New York, where he is director of the Armory Show. “Washington is a beautiful place and a wonderful city to raise a child,” Genocchio said in an email.
“It’s never easy with two people who have jobs that require a lot of time commitment,” Chiu said. “We’re very happy here, and he’s here all the time.”
An avid ice skater, she can be found in the winter months on the other side of the Mall, gliding around the National Gallery of Art’s outdoor rink, often with her daughter. She loves the outdoors and spends the weekends with her family exploring the city’s neighborhoods.
It’s the other Washington — the political, bureaucratic one — that has taken more getting used to. It’s an environment, Chiu said, that “requires a lot of patience.”
“Other environments, particularly New York, are very results-oriented. Just the way of doing things and the processes here require more time,” she said. “We have worked pretty quickly by museum standards, and extraordinarily quickly by Smithsonian standards.”
Chiu has hired four curators: Jetzer, Aquin, Mark Beasley as curator of media and performance art, and Jarrett Gregory, who started in March and will focus on international art. They join Evelyn Hankins (curator of the acclaimed Robert Irwin exhibition “All the Rules Will Change”) and Mika Yoshitake, the associate curator who was responsible for “Infinity Mirrors.” She has added staff for fundraising and visitor services, too.
Chiu has also more than doubled the advisory board from 13 members to 30. Nine, including chairman Sallick, represent the D.C. area, and seven (including the former chairman’s wife, Janine W. Hill) are based in New York. Five are international.
This is decidedly the less glamorous side of the job. She has spent many hours in airports, flying across the country, and the world, building relationships over lunches and coffees, selling her vision of the Hirshhorn to new supporters and ones she’s known for decades. It’s time-consuming work that forms the unseen financial infrastructure most museumgoers never consider.
“It takes a long time, longer than you can imagine,” said Madeleine Grynsztejn, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. “You don’t get the best people from cold calls, whether board or staff. You get the best people as a result of multiple ongoing conversations.”
But a strong board is critical to growth, and the Hirshhorn’s is on the rebound.
“Serious collectors from around the world want to be on the board again,” Sallick said. “Everyone is feeling completely energized. We all know where we’re heading. We all have a huge amount of confidence that Melissa can lead us there.”
In a time when federal support for the arts is under attack, securing private donations is more important than ever. The Hirshhorn will host a spring gala at the museum on May 6, when some 200 guests will honor five Washington artists: Sam Gilliam, Linn Meyers, Maggie Michael, Jefferson Pinder and Dan Steinhilber. Hundreds more will be invited to a late-night outdoor party. The museum plans to host this event every year.
“There are wonderful artists working here in D.C., and I would love to see more of us recognized in the museum’s galleries and at Hirshhorn events,” honoree Meyers said in an email. “There is more buzz about the Hirshhorn than there has been in years. The more excitement D.C. has for the arts, the better it is for the D.C. arts community.”
The museum last year hosted a performance series by artist and board member Theaster Gates that offered an active way for guests to react and respond to the art in the galleries. The recent exhibition showcasing Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson (done in collaboration with the Barbican in London) featured the performance-art piece “Woman in E,” a first for the museum.
Each show tests the Hirshhorn’s ability to balance interactivity with a pleasant visitor experience.
“It is more challenging as contemporary art becomes more popular. But that’s a good challenge to have,” Chiu said. “It wasn’t so long ago that museums were bemoaning our ability to attract millennials. Museums and particularly contemporary art [are] interactive, engaging and participatory. That gives them a chance to exercise their choice.”
There are more changes on the horizon. The Hirshhorn’s lobby will be redone in the fall and will feature a permanent coffee shop, a goal that has been out of reach for years, Sallicksaid. Officials are in the early stages of an overhaul of the sculpture garden, and there is a plan to bolster its use of technology. The Hills have underwritten that effort.
The museum commissioned Mark Bradford to create a series of paintings that will span the entire inner circle of the third floor, some 400 linear feet. Opening Nov. 8, the installation takes its inspiration from a famous work depicting the Battle of Gettysburg. It is Bradford’s first exhibition in Washington and coincides with his appearance representing the United States in the 57th Venice Biennale. Chiu described the work as fearless in its approach to America’s tumultuous history.
These and other exhibitions will continue Chiu’s focus on site-specific works, performance art and the integration of technology. The goal, she said, is to become a national leader in an art form that is not only incredibly popular but also enormously important.
“We are at this transitional moment, somewhere between the 20th and 21st centuries,” Chiu said. “There are things that we are trying to integrate into our lives, and artists are thinking about that. Now more than ever there is a role where contemporary art can force people to think.”
Peggy McGlone is a Washington Post staff writer.
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