At Museums, a Revolution Gains Momentum


When Melissa Chiu began her tenure as the director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden 10 years ago, she had a stray thought about the institution’s location, on the National Mall, and its appearance, a doughnut-shaped concrete structure by the architect Gordon Bunshaft with a certain resemblance to a spaceship.

“Maybe some of our visitors thought it was the Air and Space Museum,” she said of the popular institution next door, which, like the Hirshhorn, is part of the Smithsonian and which was getting more than six million visitors a year at the time. “So, OK,” she said, “that’s not a bad thing.”

Chiu — who is appearing this week at the Art for Tomorrow conference in Venice with the artist and writer John Akomfrah to discuss how artists and museums can work together to address social, political and ecological issues — did not wait around for confusion to boost attendance at her museum. (The annual conference was founded by The New York Times, and is convened by the Democracy & Culture Foundation, with panels moderated by Times journalists.)

The number of people visiting the Hirshhorn has increased dramatically since she started in 2014, when the museum received 552,000 visitors. In 2018 and 2019 that figure was up more than 50 percent, and even in the post-lockdown phase of the pandemic, a time when many museums have faced a slump in visitors, the numbers are still well above that decade-old baseline.

The issue of attendance has been a focus of museums large and small across the country lately, as tourism has shifted, interest on the part of younger people has waned in some places and regional demographics have changed. Museums have taken various steps to manage the challenge: featuring newer and sometimes lesser-known artists, catering more to local audiences, and adding technological enhancements to attract nontraditional visitors.

Seated in her office surrounded by high-energy art — including Lucio Fontana’s “Spatial Concept: Expectations” (1962), a red canvas with large, dramatic slashes in its canvas— Chiu talked about what she calls “radical accessibility,” her guiding principle.

“How do we welcome everyone?” she said. “Radical accessibility became an important way of working for us when we thought about really fulfilling our national mission.”

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Hirshhorn. Founded as the nation’s modern and contemporary art museum in 1974, it was fueled by a gift of some 6,000 artworks from the collector Joseph H. Hirshhorn.

A current show, ​“Revolutions: Art From The Hirshhorn Collection, 1860—1960,” showcases art from the founding gift alongside more recent acquisitions. Near the beginning of the show is an 1884 John Singer Sargent portrait hung next to a portrait by the contemporary Ghanaian painter Amoako Boafo.

“It’s a great way of signaling our intentions,” said Chiu of the pairing, which links two works of similar subject matter that were painted by very different artists in very different times.

The Hirshhorn is free to the public and always has been. But given the number of other free options on the Mall, that does not mean that visitors necessarily stream in.

Chiu dated the beginning of the attendance bump to the 2017 show “Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors.” Kusama, now 95 and living in Japan, has been an acclaimed artist since at least the 1960s, and she has had a particularly robust late-career renaissance. Her Instagrammable, selfie-friendly work at the Hirshhorn became a sensation, boosting museum attendance to 1.1 million that year, an all-time high.

“There were lines from 3 a.m. and it broke the Smithsonian server three times with the demand for passes,” Chiu said. “We had never seen anything like it.”

The programming decisions may have attracted people, but Chiu and her team have also made serious efforts to engage viewers with the exhibitions once they are inside.

Chief among the innovations is the Hirshhorn Eye, a mobile video guide that shows artists talking about their works; it has been adopted by other Smithsonian museums, including the National Museum of African Art.

Chiu also drew attention to the museum in an unconventional way with a six-episode TV show, The Exhibit: Finding the Next Great Artist. The competition series featured Chiu as the lead judge, and one of the prizes was a solo show at the Hirshhorn.

The biggest item on Chiu’s future agenda is outdoors: an overhaul of the sculpture garden that sits on the Mall. The $68 million project, which is being designed by the Japanese artist Hiroshi Sugimoto, is scheduled to be completed in 2026.

Without expanding the garden’s footprint, the renovation will feature 50 percent more artworks from the collection than it had previously, and more than triple the amount of seating.

“We’re the only museum with an active presence on the Mall,” said Chiu, referring to the garden’s position directly on the Mall. She hopes to capture more of the 35 million annual visitors to the manicured grassy expanse. The museum’s entrance will be reoriented to that side, too.

Chiu and her staff’s challenge, of having a huge potential audience so close to their museum, which is free, is the opposite situation in many ways to that faced by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, with an adult admission of $30 and a downtown San Francisco location that is proving challenging for visitors.

Attendance at SFMOMA is down since 2019, from nearly 900,000 visitors that year to around 600,000 in 2023.

Christopher Bedford, the museum’s director since 2022, has his own mantra for bringing people back, that sounds similar to Chiu’s: “radical hospitality.”

“We are attempting, without a compromise in scholarship, to meet people more where they are in terms of their interests,” Bedford said.

Populist programming is at the heart of his efforts, notably the current music-themed show, “Art of Noise,” and a sports-related exhibition, “Get in the Game,” planned for the fall.

“They don’t advance art history, they advance social and political history through art,” said Bedford of the shows.

One of Bedford’s “fixations,” he said, was that, in his opinion, many modern and contemporary museums don’t provide any cultural context for modern art, and they assume visitors’ knowledge of the subject with a posture of, as he put it, “‘You should appreciate this.’”He contrasted that with shows of ancient art at other museums, which take pains to explain the social and cultural context in which the works were made.

The same should be true of the 20th-century works by Ellsworth Kelly and Andy Warhol at SFMOMA, Bedford said, “So we assume total ignorance on the part of the consumer.”

To that end, in July the museum will open a gallery called “Museums 101,” where rotating installations will frame modern art in the context of modern life. The first presentation will look at the idea of newness in art, with works by Isamu Noguchi and Georges Braque, alongside developments like the baby monitor and the telephone.

Also, although SFMOMA charges visitors to get into its primary galleries, Bedford creatively deploys the 60,000 square feet of the museum that is free — an amount of space that is larger than some entire museums, he notes.

In July, part of that free space will house a new commission by the artist Kara Walker, the multidisciplinary artist and a winner of the MacArthur Fellowship, sometimes known as the “genius grant.”

“You’ll cross the threshold and experience a multimillion-dollar installation by, in my view, the country’s most important artist,” Bedford said — and, crucially, such free programming may beckon visitors into the main galleries as paying customers.

Another issue is where the museum’s visitors come from, given that San Francisco has had a blow to its image in recent years, because of problems like homelessness.

“Our museum is scaled for national and international tourism as well as the local audience,” said Bedford, referring to the fact that SFMOMA is one of the country’s largest modern and contemporary art museums. “We’ll scratch and claw our way back with the locals — and when that moment comes, it will be irresistible to tourists, too.”

Accessibility and hospitality are measured in total visitors to museums, but also in the type of people who come through the door.

At the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, the director, Rand Suffolk, has focused on the diversity of his audience, given that the 2020 census reported that 47 percent of Atlanta’s residents were Black.

In 2015, when he arrived in the director’s chair, the museum’s attendance was 15 percent Black, Indigenous and other people of color (BIPOC); in both 2022 and 2023, it was 57 percent.

“We call it the mantra of our DNA: growth, inclusivity, collaboration and connectivity,” Suffolk said.

The exhibition slate has been the primary lever. “We’ve made significant changes in our programming,” Suffolk said, citing a dramatic shift to shows that focus on women, BIPOC and L.G.B.T.Q. artists. “We’ve doubled down.”

The upcoming exhibition “Tyler Mitchell: Idyllic Space,” running June 21 to Dec. 1, features images by Mitchell, an Atlanta native who was the first Black photographer to shoot the cover of Vogue.

But the museum is also shifting its marketing. “It was exhibition-focused,” Suffolk said of the older campaigns, which were driven by touting prestige. “It used to be, ‘We’re the leading art museum in the Southeast U.S.’ But we don’t want to lead with that now.”

By contrast, the current messaging centers on the line, “My place too,” which Suffolk and his team think emphasizes the idea of belonging.

Echoing Bedford’s term, Suffolk added, “We’ve increased our hospitality.”

Visitors, of course, have their own ideas of what will make them feel welcome.

The Hirshhorn’s quirky architecture has one facet that Chiu said visitors often cited in their feedback: Currently, there are only bathrooms on the basement level, and more are needed, particularly on the primary exhibition floors.

Chiu said that would be addressed in a renovation of the building itself, a long-term project that she intends to embark on after the garden overhaul.

Accessibility, like everything else, takes time. “At a museum,” Chiu said, “change is a seven to ten-year proposition.”



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