The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Wahington D.C., designed by SOM in 1974, is undeniably striking in its design—the distinctively cylinder shaped structure is unlike anything else in the city. In 2009 Richard Koshalek, director of the modern and contemporary art museum, in a bold effort to place the museum at the forefront of our nation’s cultural institutions, came up with a radical new plan that would make the building stand out even more among the countries’ leading museums and significantly augment the city’s arts culture. Koshalek proposed his new vision for a 15-story inflatable balloon, designed by Diller Scofidio & Renfro, that would bubble out of the donut-shaped museum’s central courtyard twice a year. The project, dubbed the “Seasonal Inflatable Structure,” would serve as a unique space for installations and performances.
The idea was never realized, and as of this June the project was abandoned. Richard Kurin, the Smithsonian’s undersecretary for history, art, and culture, attributes the desertion of the project to financial challenges. The construction of the bubble relied solely on private funds, but donors prefer contributing money to a permanent structure rather than a temporary project, and after four years of fundraising, more than half of the necessary $15 million funds were lacking.
The Smithsonian’s decision to terminate the project was not supported by all, however, and resulted in a sort of domino effect of negative outcomes. Immediately following the decision to terminate Koshalek resigned as director and Constance R. Caplan stepped down as board chairwoman, but not before delivering a harsh critique of the museum and the Smithsonian Institute’s power over the board.
As reported by the New York Times, Ms. Caplan said, “When you ask people to raise money you have to give them more of a say in what happens at the institution.” Since members must donate $50,000 upon joining the board and are also expected to actively raise funds, she holds that they should have more power when making decisions about the museum.
Mr. Koshalek advocates that the future success of the museum relies on the use of novel technologies and creative programming, but others, such as 13-year board veteran and former chairman J. Tomilson Hill feel strongly that projects like the bubble will take away from the museum’s impressive collections and exhibitions, which should remain the institution’s focus. The Hirshhorn is home to modern and contemporary works by renowned leaders of 20th century art and sculpture including including Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Jackson Pollock, Ellsworht Kelly, Edward Hopper, to name only a few.
On June 29th Koshalek officially stepped down as director, but it seems like his forward thinking may prevail after all. Kerry Brougher, chief curator, has temporarily taken Mr. Koshalek’s place. At the moment Brougher’s primary concerns are the collections and exhibitions, but he shares Mr. Koshalek’s opinion that digital technologies, public programming, and thematic exhibitions will be instrumental to The Hirshhorn’s future.