When the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden introduced its ‘temporary inflatable pavilion’ project in 2009, it said it was working toward a 2012 ‘opening.’ The museum continued to promote that date as recently as March when associate director for program partnerships Erica Clark, the Hirshhorn’s Bubble czar, told MAN that the Bubble’s inaugural programming was coming in “late 2012.” However, after a Hirshhorn board meeting last week, a museum spokesperson has repeatedly declined to confirm to MAN that the museum is still expecting a 2012 realization of the project.
The Hirshhorn’s reluctance to remain publicly committed to its timeline indicates there may be problems — or at least delays — in realizing director Richard Koshalek’s signature project. Since the Bubble was announced in late 2009, only one donor has come forward: Bloomberg, LP, which pledged $1 million in September, 2010. (At the time a museum spokesperson told MAN that there was a second gift in-hand, but the museum has never publicly detailed that gift. In July 2010, Smithsonian secretary G. Wayne Clough told MAN that the Smithsonian would not be contributing funds toward the project.)
Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the museum has said that the seasonally inflatable “Bubble” event pavilion would host a range of events. A 2009 museum fact sheet said that the project would require a minimum of $7.5 million: $5 million for construction and an additional endowment of $2.5-5 million for “continuing installation, storage, and programmatic research costs.”
In the months before a board meeting last week, the Hirshhorn had consistently pointed to it as significant for the project. In January, then-Hirshhorn spokesperson Gabriel Riera told MAN that the museum was close to completing the schematic design of the project, a phase which would include climate, wind and other types of studies. Riera said that the schematic design would be completed in early March, at which time the museum would have more precise information about the design, fabrication, mechanical structures and engineering of the project, information the museum said it needed in order to have a more detailed information about the cost of the Bubble project. Riera said that the Hirshhorn would announce “further details” regarding the Bubble in May, timed to coincide with that recent Hirshhorn board meeting.
However, the Hirshhorn did not release any details in May or after last week’s board meeting. Hirshhorn spokesperson Erin Eisele refused to say whether the board discussed the Bubble project, whether a capital campaign for the Bubble was officially underway, or whether updated costs were presented to the board. “[We're] working diligently in moving forward with the Bubble project,” Eisele said in an email. Asked several times whether the museum was standing by its previously discussed “late 2012″ timeline, Eisele refused comment.
The Bubble project, which the Hirshhorn says it initiated in mid-2009, is beginning to resemble a Frank Gehry-designed library-and-design-studio project that Koshalek spearheaded in 2008, when he was president of the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif. The school encountered difficulty fundraising for the project, the merits of which prompted vigorous, public debate among school supporters and alumni. According to the Los Angeles Times, there was conflict at Art Center as to whether the Gehry project was fundamental to the school’s educational mission and whether Koshalek was more interested in that mission or in enhancing the school’s reputation via a $50 million architectural project and flashy events. Critics have raised similar questions about the Hirshhorn Bubble project. Then-Washington Post art critic Blake Gopnik criticized the museum for prioritizing a duplicative event space over its core mission, collecting and exhibiting art. (I’ve made that charge here on MAN too.)
Koshalek left Art Center in 2009. The school terminated the Gehry project.
Update: July 15, 2011: In a live Twitter Q&A, Koshalek confirmed the delay reported in this post, adding that the new target date is spring., 2013.