Arts Desk

At the Hirshhorn Museum, a New Director and a Case for Optimism

Melissa Chiu_701 (853x1280)The Smithsonian Institution announced yesterday that Melissa Chiu will be the next director for the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. She comes to the museum from the Asia Society in New York, where she has served as museum director since 2004.

The announcement comes not a moment too soon. The Hirshhorn has spent more than a year conducting a search to replace Richard Koshalek, who resigned last spring after its board delivered a neutral vote on a plan to build a temporary inflatable pavilion inside the donut-shaped museum’s courtyard.

The Hirshhorn celebrates its 40th birthday this year, but it has been suffering a midlife crisis for nearly a decade. Since 2002, it has had three directors: Ned Rifkin (2002–2005), Olga Viso (2005­–2007) and Koshalek (2009–2013). Rifkin left to focus on his concurrent duties as under secretary for art (a position that, regrettably, the Smithsonian has since eliminated). Viso, a charismatic young leader who joined the museum as a curator in 1998, left almost immediately after being appointed director, leaving many in the arts community to wonder how the Smithsonian could lose such a rising star. (She has since served as the director of the Walker Art Center, a prestigious post.)

With the exception of the massively popular "SONG1" exhibit, Koshalek’s ambitious schemes failed to garner the support they needed within the board or among top Smithsonian brass—a shame, in the case of his plan to build a temporary "bubble" structure, for Washington architecture.

In its search for a new director, then, the Hirshhorn would prioritize stability. (Longtime chief curator Kerry Brougher also recently moved on, taking with him significant institutional knowledge.) Chiu may promise exactly that. As the museum director and senior vice president for global arts and cultural programs, she has greatly expanded the Asia Society's contemporary art programming, mounting exhibits by Cai Guo-Qiang, Yoshitomo Nara, Sarah Sze, and Ai Weiwei. An Australian native, Chiu brings a global vision to the post and, perhaps more importantly, experience executing that vision at a global level. Recently, she oversaw opening exhibitions for two new Asia Society outposts, in Houston and Hong Kong.

In a release, the Smithsonian describes Chiu as an "effective and creative fundraiser," noting that she secured about 80 percent of the Asia Society Museum’s budget through charitable contributions and grants. As the museum's director—where she oversaw a staff of 100 and an operating budget of $29 million—she received a relatively modest base salary of slightly more than $200,000. At the Hirshhorn, she will oversee an annual budget of about $8 million (which comes in addition to the roughly $10 million that the federal government pays for operational expenses, such as human resources and maintenance) and a staff half the size. The Asia Society Museum represents roughly half of the Asia Society's overall budget; available tax records show that the Asia Society has run massive deficits since 2009.

More important for the Hirshhorn's immediate future will be whether Chiu can shore up the institution's low morale in time for what should be an important birthday. And with the Smithsonian plotting a new master campus plan, Chiu will be a crucial stakeholder with say in the shape of the National Mall to come. To do either of these things—to set the Hirshhorn on a new footing—she will need to stick around for a while.

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