This post has been corrected. My information on the number of board voters was incorrect.
Last Thursday the board of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden voted on whether the museum would move forward with the Bubble, the Diller, Scofidio and Renfro-designed pseudo-structure that director Richard Koshalek hoped to build as an events space. The vote resulted in a tie. Koshalek did the only thing there was to do: He resigned. (Koshalek’s resignation isn’t effective until December 31, 2013. I don’t know why.)
None of this is a surprise as the last six months or so have seen the project move from stumbling to flailing. The Hirshhorn’s widely admired board chairman, J. Tomilson Hill, quit the museum in late 2012 after what sources said was an “intense discussion” of the Bubble at a Hirshhorn board meeting. (Hill went on to become a trustee at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.) In April, the top Hirshhorn staffer assigned exclusively to the Bubble project, Jessica Dawson, abruptly quit. [Gawker Media-style illustration via Twitter user @Gina_Rafaella.]
And those are just the most recent speed bumps. The Hirshhorn often announced the timeline for opening the structure, and just as often pushed it back. In 2010, Koshalek’s office emailed museum staff to ask them to “enter and exit the Museum” and then to walk around the museum when a prospective donor was visiting: Koshalek wanted the Hirshhorn, one of the half-dozen most-visited contemporary art museums in America, to look more crowded. While the Hirshhorn has not released information about its Bubble fundraising totals in some time, the museum’s own fundraising seems to have amounted to little more than about 10-15 percent of the project costs. According to sources, only one Hirshhorn trustee (acting board chair Constance R. Caplan) pledged a significant donation toward the project. A Smithsonian news release said that the Hirshhorn board was “unable to reach consensus” among the Hirshhorn board about the future of the project. (And all this is to say nothing of other Koshalek missteps, such as his interest in using acquisition funds to remodel the Hirshhorn’s bookstore.)
While the Hirshhorn board failed to vote to move forward with the Bubble, Smithsonian secretary G. Wayne Clough pulled off a bureaucratic power-play and announced that he “will consult with Richard Kurin, the Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture and others, and will make an announcement [on the Bubble] in June.” While it’s hard to believe that Clough could effectively force an obviously disinterested Hirshhorn board to raise money for the project, there is another possibility: That Clough ‘takes’ the Bubble concept from the Hirshhorn and turns it into a Smithsonian project.
While the Bubble was always a terrible idea for the Hirshhorn — leave alone the pathetic fundraising, the Bubble duplicated an already-extant museum space and Koshalek never explained what the project had to do with the museum’s art-focused mission — it could be a terrific idea for the Smithsonian, which has quite a different mission from the Hirshhorn. The Smithsonian has no significant venue in which major figures in the arts and sciences might present research, hold public discussions and the like. A “Smithsonian Bubble” could provide the institution with a physical place in which historians, curators, scientists and researchers from its many museums and research centers could engage in cross-disciplinary conversations, including with outside thinkers such as artists. While $15-20 million proved to be too much for a feeble Hirshhorn board to raise, that sum would be much less daunting for the Smithsonian.
What’s next for the Hirshhorn? After three-and-a-half years of leading a hoped-for construction effort more than he ran a museum — morale at the Hirshhorn is so low that Koshalek’s employees rate the Hirshhorn the second-worst place to work in the 41-unit Smithsonian system — the museum is pretty much back where it was in September, 2007, when then-director Olga Viso left to run the Walker Art Center.
The museum accomplished little of significance during Koshalek’s tenure: The only major acquisition was this excellent Dan Flavin. Sadly, the museum fell from being an international leader in exhibitions and research to mostly being a pass-through for exhibitions organized by other museums. (The exception, in part because of low curatorial staffing levels for much of Koshalek’s tenure: Chief curator Kerry Brougher has produced meaningful exhibitions and scholarship.) Koshalek’s splashiest art-related gambit was the presentation of a forgettable Doug Aitken-directed music video. Too often collection installations have been stale or organized around a painfully thin premise.
But don’t just take my word for it. When Koshalek was hired in 2009, he sat with me for an interview that I published in two parts. (Included in our conversation was Koshalek’s first revelation of plans for what would become the Bubble). Koshalek told me that his focus would be on enabling intense research, creative exhibitions organized by adjunct curators, plans to take advantage of being in America’s capital to bring in artists and curators eager to engage with national and international politics, and the strengthening of the board. Little of that happened.
Koshalek’s pending departure creates hope. The Hirshhorn has a top-notch collection, strong (albeit under-utilized) curatorial talent, a consistent revenue stream and one of the highest-profile locations of any American art museum. For those reasons, there’s every reason to believe the museum’s next director can turn the place around. Sadly, that director’s first job will be the same as what Koshalek’s first job should have been: Building up the museum’s second-tier board into an engaged, generous enabler.
Strangely, local press reports have questioned whether the Hirshhorn actually is a top-tier job absent Koshalek’s Bubble. Last Friday, Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post catch-all critic Philip Kennicott wrote, “If Clough kills the project, grave doubts would be raised about whether the Smithsonian can attract a top-tier successor to Koshalek, and whether [the Smithsonian] is a fit steward for a world-class art museum… Institutions grow by announcing ambitious plans and building support for them, but there is a powerful risk that by failing to realize a bold plan, support withers and momentum dies. If the Bubble is scrapped, anyone who considers replacing Koshalek will naturally wonder whether the Smithsonian is capable of hosting a forward-thinking art museum under its institutional umbrella.”
Over the last few months, I’ve talked with over a dozen art museum leaders about the Hirshhorn and the Bubble. Several of those people are likely candidates for the Hirshhorn directorship and several were candidates in 2007-08, the last time the museum searched for a director. Not one of them believed that there was any connection between the quality of the Hirshhorn directorship or the museum’s ability to attract top talent, and the Bubble. Many of them stressed that they viewed the Bubble as a white elephant, an expensive, extraneous distraction that would make the the job less attractive.
Furthermore, Kennicott’s application of a corporatist imperative to a non-profit art museum is strange. ‘Grow or die’ is a common mantra in the business world, but non-profits, especially art museums, define growth and success in a different way, in terms of mission fulfillment. (As noted above, one of the problems with the Bubble was that Koshalek never tied its purpose or potential programming to the Hirshhorn’s mission.) Nearly every museum director or top curator with whom I’ve discussed the Hirshhorn in recent months believes that the museum is fully capable of being the progressive force Kennicott described — but that to do so it doesn’t need a Bubble, but a significantly stronger, more generous board. The beefing-up of the Hirshhorn board could and should start now, with the organization of a search committee with national-level philanthropists who want to be involved with the Hirshhorn going forward, and with an equal number of Washingtonians eager to commit themselves to the Hirshhorn’s future. The make-up of that committee and its commitment to the museum will go a long way toward determining what type of candidates the museum attracts.
But the good news is that the museum is almost certainly now able to move on. From the start the Bubble has been a sideshow. The Hirshhorn is now all-but-free to go back to focusing on art, which is good news for the staff, and for those of us who love art, too.