It’s not a dumb idea, this Diller Scofidio and Renfro-designed ‘Bulbous Membrane’ that Hirshhorn museum director Richard Koshalek is proposing. But it’s not a good one either — not yet anyway.
In case you missed it, yesterday the Hirshhorn (or the architects) used the New York Times’ architecture critic, Nicolai Ouroussoff, as a fundraiser and the paper as a fundraising brochure. Ouroussoff’s write-up made it clear that the Bulbous Membrane circus-top as imagined by the Hirshhorn is an unfunded mandate, a fantasy-in-search-of-fulfillment.
In other words, the museum is floating concept before it demonstrates capability. The recent historical context for Koshalek and this kind of project is noteworthy: Koshalek left his last job (at Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design) amid a controversy about whether he wanted to be a builder or an educator. The question here is similar: Does Koshalek want to be an ringmaster events programmer or an art museum director? Is the Hirshhorn an art museum or an events forum?
(As a Washingtonian, it was initially hard for me to separate the idea from the rollout. For years the
Hirshhorn has been heavily visited by tourists but has struggled to attract and demonstrate interest in Washington audiences. The Hirshhorn’s only real success in pulling in Washingtonians comes at its quarterly nighttime parties, called ‘After Hours.’ The museum’s lectures and similar programming have long struggled to pull in crowds — mostly because the museum refuses to consider itself a part of its community. By revealing the ‘Bulbous Membrane’ in the NYT, the museum delivered it’s latest ‘Who cares about you, Washington?’ to its home audience; locals are smart enough to realize that this project isn’t about them, it’s about the Hirshhorn’s seeking attention from people other than Washingtonians. Some museums never learn.)
The Bulbous Membrane is problematic for reasons that go beyond the Hirshhorn’s difficult relationship with Washingtonians. In a vacuum, the Bulbous Membrane is a sexy, awesome pseudo-structure. Contemporary art museums in particular have an obligation to engage their communities in debate about the contemporary issues that artists address in their work. The Bulbous Membrane would, in a limited, twice-a-year way help the Hirshhorn do that better than it does it now.
But Koshalek has not accepted the directorship of a vacuum, he’s the director of an art museum with specific needs. Art museums are about art, about collecting art, researching art, caring for art, installing art and teaching about art. The Hirshhorn is unusually well-positioned to fulfill that part of its mission: It has a fantastic collection of art, mostly from the last 100 years. It has so much super-duper stuff that it has nowhere to put it all. There probably isn’t another major American modern-and-contemporary art museum with a worse ratio of great art in its collection to great art on view.
Few major American museums have gone as long without expanding their galleries as the Hirshhorn has. (This list begins with Washington’s National Gallery of Art, and includes the Hirshhorn and the Albright-Knox.) By proposing this performance and programming space instead of addressing the Hirshhorn’s acute lack of gallery space, Koshalek is saying that events are more important than art. He’s wrong; the Hirshhorn’s priority should be art, not showmanship.
It’s true that the Hirshhorn is effectively prohibited from expanding its Gordon Bunshaft-designed doughnut. That’s why the museum is proposing a temporary semi-structure. It’s also true that the Hirshhorn’s board of trustees has not been a powerful fundraising force. But there are still exciting ways that Koshalek could — and should — prioritize art over spectacle. The most obvious idea is this: The Hirshhorn should be targeting Washington’s Martin Luther King, Jr Memorial Library building for expansion. [Image.]
Designed by Mies van der Rohe, it’s only two subway stops or a 10-minute walk away from the Hirshhorn. Taking it over, fixing it up (it’s long been neglected by the District) and converting it into galleries would help the Hirshhorn cross the National Mall and become a more engaged resident of the city (while still being in a high-tourist-traffic area).
The District of Columbia has been trying to rid itself of the Mies for the better part of the last three years. As a result, it would likely be inexpensive for the Hirshhorn to acquire or effectively acquire the Mies via a 99-year lease. (Kriston Capps has been writing about the Mies debate for years.) Targeting the Mies would be about art and it would be about engaging audiences in the vibrant core of a major international capital city.
The Hirshhorn apparently wants to call this Bulbous Membrane thing a ‘bubble.’ Unless Koshalek shows he’s as interested in art as he is in big-name architects and fancy events — and I’d be all for it if the Hirshhorn wanted to do both the Bulbous Membrane and something that addresses its need for more gallery space — Koshalek’s idea will fit Merriam-Webster’s second definition of ‘bubble': It’ll be a “delusive scheme.”