Arts Desk

No Hirshhorn Bubble. Now What?

With some of its gallery space closed as a result of the sequester, its director on the way out, its ambitious project for a temporary architectural pavilion scrapped, and its staff and board suffering vacancies that will be difficult to fill, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden is at low tide.

Now the Smithsonian begins the difficult project of righting the Hirshhorn's ship, following a period of experimentation and angst that came to an end today with the announcement that the museum's proposed Bubble project is off the table.

"People at the Hirshhorn have done great works over the last few years," says Richard Kurin, the Smithsonian Institution's undersecretary for history, art, and culture, in a discussion with Washington City Paper about the museum's future. "Richard [Koshalek] has brought a great deal of vigor, energy, and ideals to the place. But it's tough times."

Koshalek, the Hirshhorn's director, resigned on May 23 following an inconclusive vote by the Hirshhorn board of trustees on the Bubble's future . Two trustees of the Hirshhorn also resigned last month as plans to build the temporary pavilion known as the Bubble fell part, Kurin says. Board treasurer Paul C. Schorr III, who chaired the committee tasked with fundraising for the Bubble, resigned from the board following the May 23 meeting. Trustee Gina Diez Barroso, founder of the Mexican architecture and interior design firm Grupo Diarq, resigned in advance of that meeting.

The Smithsonian will conduct a search for a new director to replace Koshalek. (The museum's deputy director and chief curator, Kerry Brougher, will serve as acting director in the interim.) Kurin says that the Smithsonian will engage a search firm as well as form a search committee within the institution, as it has done in the past to find museum directors.

"I’ve done a lot of searches at the Smithsonian. I hired Richard!" Kurin says. "I’m absolutely convinced we are going to hire someone phenomenal."

Filling holes on the staff will be more difficult. The Hirshhorn parted ways with its international curator for contemporary art, Adam Budak, in October of last year. Due to the sequester, that position won't be restaffed. Jessica Dawson, who joined the Hirshhorn as a Bubble staffer in 2011, left the museum in April. Erica Clark, who was associate director for program partnerships and program director for the Bubble, is now working as a Smithsonian contractor from Los Angeles.

The more immediate concern will be finding a director with a new vision to guide the museum. Kurin says that a different physical scheme for the Hirshhorn might be welcome—even after the failed three-and-a-half year fundraising effort that fell short of the $15 million needed to pay for the temporary inflatable structure. As a museum building, the Hirshhorn has its flaws, he says. "The entrance of the museum is on Independence Ave—who would figure that out?"

Although the Hirshhorn board asked for more time to raise funds for the Bubble, Kurin points out that the deadline had been extended at least four times since fall 2012. Unlike other Smithsonian projects on the National Mall—which can takes years to site, develop, and construct—many of the usual logistical questions didn't apply to the Bubble, making for an abbreviated timeline for making a decision.

"People have a problem supporting a temporary structure," Kurin says, referring to people inside the Smithsonian. "If temporality was a drag on the project, maybe the next director [of the Hirshhorn] can think of something that carries the same energy but doesn’t have all the failings of this project."

The next Hirshhorn director will face two difficult tasks made more so by national austerity: boosting a diminished staff whose morale has fallen to an all-time low, and rebuilding a board whose giving has seen a big drop-off in recent years.

"You have to have a practical sense about it, managing an institution," Kurin says, discussing just one of the qualities he expects in the next director. "I don’t remember who said it: Vision without implementation is hallucination."

Bubble rendering courtesy Diller Scofidio + Renfro

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