Anna Tulchinskaya waited for hours one morning to try to get passes to the wildly popular “Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors” exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum only to see the people in front of her get the last passes for the day. So the Alexandria resident wasn’t optimistic when she entered the museum’s sweepstakes for tickets to the final hour of the final day of the show, which opened in February and has generated nonstop buzz ever since.
But there she was Sunday night, not only among the last of the 160,000 visitors to the exhibition — numbers that pushed attendance at the Smithsonian’s modern and contemporary art museum to record levels — but also having the honor of placing the last sticker in the “Obliteration Room.”
The interactive work, the last in the show, started as a stark white room that, since February, has been covered by 750,000 colored dots. On the show’s final evening, the room hosted a party of strangers, all feeling lucky to have gotten into the exhibition before it closed. Everyone had their phones out, taking selfies and posing for carefully constructed portraits. A line formed near the room’s piano, a prime spot for photos. Someone played a few bars of “Lean on Me” while guests peeled pink, red and yellow dots from their sticker cards and placed them on the walls, floors, books and trophies that had been painstakingly arranged throughout the room.
“It’s a great example of an artist who does something simple again and again, throughout her career, until it become monumental,” Tulchinskaya said.
Hirshhorn officials said about 475,000 visitors came to the museum and sculpture garden during the exhibition’s 11-week run. The crowds were double the normal attendance for that time of year, and set a record for the most in the museum’s history. Still, two-thirds of those visitors were shut out of the show that they probably had come to see.
“It has been transformative on so many levels,” museum Director Melissa Chiu said of “Infinity Mirrors,” which will open in Seattle next month. “It has put the Hirshhorn where we want to be, at the center of a conversation about contemporary art. It has built the local community, and it has had an enormous impact on raising the visibility of the Hirshhorn.”
A hit on social media, the exhibition is the first to feature six of the Japanese artist’s “Infinity Mirror” rooms, immersive works that guests enter in groups of two to four for about 20 seconds.
The Hirshhorn introduced free timed passes to limit crowding and control the flow of people through the galleries. Every Monday since early February, the museum released passes on its website for admission the following week. It also distributed same-day passes to visitors who lined up each morning, some arriving as early as 5 a.m.
But crowds got the better of the museum staff, leading to complaints about long lines and little time to enjoy the works. Officials responded in several ways. They reduced the number of overall passes and decreased the number of advance tickets in favor of same-day passes. Having released 9,000 in advance for the early weeks, they pulled back to about 3,000 a week recently. At the same time, they increased the number of same-day passes, going as high as 1,000 on some days.
Demand for tickets remained higher than the 1,500 or so available each day, causing many people to complain on social media about the system.
“Every facility has its capacity, whether it’s a stadium or a museum,” Chiu said. “The issue for us was concerns for personal safety and artwork safety. We were able to facilitate as many visitors as we possibility could.”
Many of the guests passing through on the final day had tried repeatedly to get in earlier. In a last-ditch effort, Dakshinya Gudipati and Shashank Athota got in line at 6 a.m. on Sunday and, at noon, were handed the last pair of passes for the entire run. They entered the gallery at 5 p.m. and at 8 p.m. were still in soaking up the experience.
“My heart was pounding, we were so lucky,” said Gudipati, of Gaithersburg.
“I’m not that into art, but I really liked this,” added Athota, who lives in Philadelphia and gave up a cricket match — “something I never do” — to join Gudipati. “This is really good.”
“Infinity Mirrors” also has been good for the museum’s bottom line. The museum sold out the special, lower-priced memberships created for the show, and the Kusama-themed spring gala attracted more than 350 guests and raised $700,000, more than double the previous Washington fundraising party. The gala honored five Washington artists and featured a late-night party that allowed more guests to attend.
“People want to be involved in an institution that’s doing well, that’s relevant and that there’s a level excitement around the programming,” Chiu said.
The exhibition’s hype remained strong the entire run, a combination of its ubiquity on social media and the limited supply of passes. Visitors this weekend relished in their late luck, although many could be heard strategizing ways to see it again when it moves to Seattle, Los Angeles, Toronto, Cleveland and Atlanta.
Scott Strickland, a lawyer from Arlington, failed to get passes on numerous Mondays but nabbed four on his final try. Accompanied by three friends, Strickland climbed on a stool in corner of the “Obliteration Room,” stretching his phone up high to get an elevated selfie of the brightly colored room.
“It’s sort of like being in New York City and getting ‘Hamilton’ tickets,” he said. “If you made it here, and you get a selfie, you have to get it up.”