My Washington: Melissa Chiu

Melissa Chiu | Director, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

Photo by Greg Powers

YOU HAVE BEEN CREDITED WITH “AN ASTOUNDING RENAISSANCE” AT THE HIRSHHORN, WITH A 200 PERCENT IN VISITORS SINCE YOU TOOK OVER IN 2014. HOW DID YOU ACCOMPLISH THIS?

We have an extraordinary team at the museum and recently we have focused our efforts on asking ourselves the question: how are artists responding to this moment we are living in? So far, these have ranged from Yayoi Kusama’s interest in the idea of infinity to Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s art that chronicles a visitor’s pulse, transmitting it as light across the museum.

WHAT WAS YOUR BIGGEST CHALLENGE WHEN YOU TOOK OVER AND WHAT IS IT NOW?

My biggest challenge when I joined was to convince people we were not going to do “the bubble.” Now, our challenge is how to engage the nearly 1 million visitors with the vision of artists. How do we create spaces in the museum for understanding what artists were thinking about when they created their art work? We’ve done this by making efforts to create more welcoming spaces and created a new technology initiative called “Hirshhorn Eye” that gives visitors instant artist videos in front of art work.

YOU WERE INITIALLY CRITICIZED FOR GOING “OUTSIDE THE BELTWAY” TO HOST FUNDRAISING EVENTS AND RECRUIT NEW TRUSTEES TO AN EXPANDED BOARD OF TRUSTEES. WHAT HAPPENED?

The Hirshhorn was always a national museum with an international mandate. When I began, we had financial needs and we held fundraising events across the country to help. Now that people see that these events helped us stage exhibitions like Kusama, I think there is a greater understanding of what we were trying to do.

WHAT IS YOUR POLICY AND VISION FOR NEW ACQUISITIONS AND WHAT ARE THE HIGHLIGHTS OF THE WORKS ACQUIRED THUS FAR DURING YOUR TENURE AS DIRECTOR?

We have looked carefully at the past 100 years and are paying attention to artists who were a part of the art world but until now may not have been given the attention or recognition they deserved. I think there are many artists whom we didn’t know much about simply because they weren’t living in the art centers of Paris or New York. I see some of our acquisitions for our collection as broadening out the story of art history.

YOU HAVE EARNED A REPUTATION FOR HOSTING SOMEWHAT OUTLANDISH OPENING NIGHT PARTIES. WHAT IS NEXT IN STORE?

Well, our 1980s exhibition gala with Jennifer Rubell’s performance with all the clowns was memorable! We are planning a special summer event next year for our outside plaza so watch this space …

DO YOU HAVE A “DREAM EXHIBITION” THAT YOU WOULD LIKE TO MOUNT BEFORE YOU LEAVE?

Too many to name…we work three years in advance so we have the good fortune to be able to work on a number of exhibitions at the same time. There is no one dream project for me. I like to see them together as a continuum.

MY TOP SPOTS:

Dolcezza at the Hirshhorn for morning coffee, of course! – one of the best coffee purveyors in the city.

The National Gallery of Art’s Ice Skating Rink – where else can you ice skate amid sculptural masterpieces?

Union Market is one of my favorite weekend spots as there is always an exciting mix of local food and local art.

Rasika West End for dinner- some of the most sophisticated Indian food of anywhere, including India where I have spent a fair bit of time.

My daughter loves The National Museum of American History’s Spark Lab where children are invited to test and explore science, technology and math.

Local artist-run spaces like Transformer and the District of Columbia Arts Center.

This article appeared in the Holiday 2018 issue of Washington Life magazine. 

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