Arts Desk

Popping Bottles or Popping Bubbles: May Countdown for the Hirshhorn

May has seen its share of inflatable art projects. The artist Christo completed Big Air Package, designed by Christo and Jeanne-Claude for the gasometer in Oberhausen, Germany. It's not the artists' first large inflatable, or even the artists' first project for the Oberhausen gasometer, but it's the world's largest inflated envelope. Flortijn Hofman's Rubber Duck and Paul McCarthy's Complex Pile are just two of the balloon projects on view in Hong Kong right now.

Washington should know later this month whether the National Mall will be getting its own inflatable thingy. On May 23, the board of trustees at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden is meeting to decide the fate of the so-called Bubble. Following that meeting, the board will in all likelihood pass its recommendation—to pump or to pop, as it were—to Smithsonian Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture Richard Kurin and Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution G. Wayne Clough.

For a project that appears to be full of hot air—and worth about as much, in the eyes of its critics—the Bubble's board supporters have put some serious muscle into a final fundraising push this spring.

Back in February, the Hirshhorn's board brought on a closer: Community Counseling Services, a Washington- and New York–based fundraising consultancy. This is not a boutique firm. CCS clients include the Archdiocese of Baltimore, the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, the entire University of North Carolina system, and the ASPCA. In the cultural sector, CCS has worked on the fundraising campaign for the Crocker Art Museum's $100 million, 125,000-square-foot expansion, which was designed by Gwathmey Siegel & Associates Architects and opened in 2010. The consultancy also restructured the development campaign for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which is currently raising half a billion dollars toward its endowment. One Hirshhorn trustee picked up the ticket for CCS; a museum source says that it was treasurer Paul C. Schorr III.

But not even the Nationals' Rafael Soriano could guarantee a win this late in the game. Earlier this year, Smithsonian spokesperson Linda St. Thomas told City Paper that the museum had raised about $8 million toward its $12.5 million goal to build out the Bloomberg Balloon, which is the brainchild of Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the architects behind New York's celebrated High Line. But in a story for the May 2013 issue of Smithsonian, writer Joseph Giovannini says that Hirshhorn director Richard Koshalek is still about $5 million short. (Full disclosure: Giovannini is a contributing editor at Architect magazine, where I am a senior editor.)

Despite all its high-profile supporters—Giovannini counts architect Frank Gehry, artist Barbara Kruger, and sculptor Richard Serra as Bubbleistos—the project still faces long odds. With time running out, not everyone at the Hirshhorn necessarily agrees about what the museum is up against, exactly. Board treasurer Schorr tells Smithsonian that the Hirshhorn's problem is that it's understaffed. That problem's unlikely to change any time soon. Due to a staffing freeze, the Hirshhorn won't be restaffing the vacancy left by Jessica Dawson, who joined the Bubble as staff in 2011. (Dawson, whose last day at the museum was May 3, is bound for New York; Koshalek says that he hopes she will still be involved in Hirshhorn programming in the future.) The sequester may keep the Hirshhorn from staffing up, but St. Thomas says that it won't affect the privately funded Bubble in any way.

Which is a point in the Bubble's favor, as the national mood steers toward austerity. Critics may say that the project's been dragging on too long, but in terms of National Mall projects, this one's moved speedily enough. I'm grossed out by the notion of a "cultural Davos on the Mall," as Giovannini puts it, but I also figure that the Bubble pavilion, once it's built, will inspire more uses than the prescribed lecture hall. And a high-profile, modest, adaptive pavilion in the nation's capital would do some work to dispel the Bilbao Effect concept that expensive, brick-and-mortar cultural projects are the only projects worth dreaming about.

The best case for the Bubble remains that it's cheap, it's au courant, and it's this or nothing. That case has not won over everyone. I agree with most of art critic and blogger Tyler Green's complaints about the project, especially programming, or the lack thereof (though Green has chided me for occasionally equivocating). Since the beginning, the impulse behind the project has been to compete with the rising, inflationary, monumental spectacle-ism at contemporary art museums.

But a failure to develop a project that is ultimately so cheap and open-ended will haunt Washington. Anyone who thinks that there's a bathtub's worth of Bubbles queued up for the Smithsonian after this one bursts misunderstands both the close-to-capacity National Mall and the edge-of-austerity national mood.

Look, it's simple: When you reach the sign that says you're 30 miles before the next exit, you don't decide to take the ramp based on the price of gas or the type of drive-through. You take the exit because you won't get another chance.

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