Over the past few years, the art world has watched as Washington’s two most august art institutions have struggled with their identities. The Corcoran Gallery of Art couldn’t survive a financial crisis caused in part by disagreements between staff and trustees about what kind of exhibits it should mount and whom its shows were for. Two years ago, at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum, director Richard Koshalek quit after the board abandoned his vision for the museum’s 1974 building by modernist Gordon Bunshaft.
In June, the Smithsonian hired Melissa Chiu, director of Manhattan’s Asia Society Museum, to take the helm at the Hirshhorn. An Australian whose previous job had her shuttling among New York, Houston, and Hong Kong, Chiu promises to extend the Hirshhorn’s global reach. But after the distractions of recent years, she’ll first have to tend to matters at home—reconnecting a world-class museum to a city and the trustees to its day-to-day leader. Here’s a conversation with Chiu about her plans for the Hirshhorn.
The last half decade has been a rough time at the Hirshhorn. An ill-conceived architectural folly went nowhere (see image below), and the importance and volume of the museum’s scholarship fell off as leadership was focused on other things. What will be your focus in turning the place around?
As I came onboard as director, the Hirshhorn was celebrating its 40th anniversary. So I’ve spent some time looking at the history of the Hirshhorn, and what I found is that the fundamentals are great—the collection is one of the best in the country of postwar American and European art—and the actual financial fundamentals, being part of the Smithsonian, make it an institution that is on very sound footing.
I’m focused on two main priorities. One is building up the Hirshhorn’s international standing through exhibitions and collection initiatives. There are a number of ways we’re working on that. There will be an emphasis on scholarship around the collection we have, but also on building in this idea of new scholarship, or new insights into contemporary art.
The other priority is technology. I’m looking at it in art-making itself—work made in new media, web-based work, or work made in new technology is something we’ll do. The show we have on at the moment, “Days of Endless Time,” is mostly video work. The second part of that is visitor experience. We know that new technology, especially mobile technology, can augment an active, interpretive visitor experience within the museum. We’ve already developed some innovations such as a virtual Hirshhorn, created by our ArtLab educational center, which we hope to introduce to a greater number of visitors through our website.
In recent years, museums like the Hirshhorn that have both modern and contemporary collections have emphasized the contemporary period. I’m thinking of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the Whitney in New York. But the Hirshhorn’s modernist holdings are among America’s—and really the world’s—best: Marsden Hartley, Willem de Kooning, Henri Matisse’s sculpture, and so on.
This intersection between modern and contemporary is interesting, because we think of modern as being early 20th century and contemporary as kind of postwar. And yes, the Hirshhorn has a foot in both camps. What I would say is that there’s been an enormous amount of scholarship already in the modern period. What interests me is looking for fresh insights into our modern collection, an exhibition program that teases out a new finding or a new thing that hasn’t been addressed before.
Or I’d ask if there are new connections between modern and contemporary that can be teased out in a new way. I’m interested in bridging what would ordinarily be considered a disjuncture between the two.
Your first hire wasn’t a chief curator but Gianni Jetzer as curator-at-large. Jetzer is a former director of the Swiss Institute in New York, and he lives there. The Hirshhorn has quite a strong in-house curatorial team—why do you need someone from the outside?
We have five permanent curators on staff, some of whom have been with the Hirshhorn for decades. So we have a whole lot of curatorial expertise based in Washington, people who do frequently go to New York. But Gianni Jetzer brings an expertise that will help us think globally. I come from a place where you identify the kind of shows you want to do, then look for the most talented people to do them. Sometimes that’s an internal candidate, and sometimes it’s external. I don’t really distinguish where they’re located.
Los Angeles is the other American city that’s one of the world’s art-making capitals. Will you be hiring a curator-at-large from there as well?
[Laughs.] Let’s see. In my previous job, I worked a lot with independent curators. It’s really about working out who the best curator for a particular show is.
In November, the Smithsonian announced a site plan for the area south of the Mall, by a Danish architectural firm led by Bjarke Ingels. Are you onboard with the plan?
I’m still learning about that architectural brief. The main aim of it, in terms of its goal for the Hirshhorn, is to physically open the Hirshhorn up to the Mall, which I’m fully in support of. Right now, there are structural issues that don’t encourage foot traffic to the museum off the Mall, so if anything can be done to encourage that, I’m all for it.
Does Ingels’s plan go far enough?
The physical experience of the Hirshhorn is unique. Gordon Bunshaft’s vision was a round building that’s now 40 years old. We just opened newly renovated third-floor galleries, which allow us to show sculpture, especially contemporary sculpture, in conversation with our paintings collection.
My priority is the lobby. I’m interested in how we can create a welcome, open environment to experience our art. I’m looking at considering artist commissions, or even additions to that lobby area. A number of my predecessors have been interested in expanding the physical footprint of the Hirshhorn, and I understand why, but my focus, at least in the short term, is really looking at that first encounter.
But if you want to encapsulate my approach, to the next few years at least, it would be to focus on software rather than hardware—I’m interested in the programs and the exhibitions and the collection right now.
The Hirshhorn is a national museum, but it sits in one of America’s largest metropolitan areas. In recent years, its connection with Washington has all but evaporated. Do you have a sense of how frayed that relationship is and what you’ll do to address it?
Yes, I do. There are two main programs we have that have done a lot to build community relations—After Hours and ArtLab+. After Hours, my third week on the job, had [singer] Zola Jesus play in the plaza, and 1,800 people turned up! We had gallery tours and all those sorts of things. ArtLab is an educational program for teens that helps them use technology in different ways. They’re the main signature programs we have right now that are about the community.
There are many other things we do in terms of adult public programs. To some extent, we also have work to do in just building up public outreach for our Washington audiences, but we have a number of programs in place to build on.
How much do you think of the Hirshhorn as a Washington museum? And how do you plan on using the museum’s geography and community—from locals to the policy world to the international community—to your advantage?
Washington is a very international city. Many say the eyes of the world are on Washington because of its political importance. This attention coupled with the robust intellectual life provides an additional layer of complexity to thinking about exhibitions and collections.
Building on the Hirshhorn’s international presence doesn’t preclude us from having a vital engagement with our more immediate community. I’m very aware that we can create energy around our programming only from building a loyalty and interest in the museum. In the past, this has been done through exhibitions, lectures, artist talks, and films. After Hours performances on our plaza have been particularly successful in activating younger audiences, too.
It’s important to consider audiences in Washington while also raising an awareness of the Hirshhorn as the nation’s museum for modern and contemporary art.
Tyler Green, host of the Modern Art Notes podcast, is working on a book about the American photographer Carleton Watkins.
This article appears in the February 2015 issue of Washingtonian.
The percentage of District residents without a four-year college degree who can't find full-time work jumped significantly between 2007 and 2013, according to a report published Wednesday by the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, again throwing into relief just how uneven the city's economic recovery since the Great Recession has been. DC's underemployment rate for people with some post-high school education, including two-year degrees, went from 9 percent to 22 percent over that span, and recent economic trends do not appear to offer much relief anytime soon.
The underemployment rates also rose nearly as significantly for District residents with less education in the years since the Great Recession, with the rate for residents with just a high-school diploma nearly doubling from about 16 percent to 31 percent, and less than high school going from about 25 percent to 32 percent. The underemployment rate for people with at least bachelor's degree remained low, rising from 5 percent to 6 percent since 2007.
The figures are part of a larger DCFPI study on income inequality, which the think tank reports is at its widest point in 35 years when comparing the hourly pay of the top 20 percent of earners to that of the bottom 20 percent. The top quintile took home more than $45 per hour in 2013, while the bottom made $12.62 an hour. Since the recession hit, earnings at the top have gone up 15.9 percent, while actually decreasing at the bottom, reflecting a national trend in rising income gaps.
For low-wage earners, this represents a 1-percent decline from what they made in 2007, but high-wage workers have seen their earnings increase by $6 an hour. Middle-wage workers saw about a $3 hourly increase after the economic downturn, rising to $24.25. Since 1979—the last time the gap was this big—low-income wages have risen only 7 percent, while high-income wages have more than doubled.
The widening gap between high-income and low-income residents is even starker when comparing just the top 1 percent of earners to the other 99 percent. Average income for the very highest-income workers in the District is 32.3 times higher than the average income for everyone else, according to a separate report by the Economic Policy Institute. If DC were compared to the states on that metric, it would rank eighth.
The overall employment situation for DC's black and Hispanic populations continues to be especially bleak. While the city's unemployment rate of 7.4 percent is down from a mid-recession peak of 10.4 percent, joblessness among blacks and Hispanics remains well into double digits. Black residents endured an unemployment rate of 16 percent in 2013, twice that of Hispanics and more than four times the rate for white residents, the report states.
Job prospects are even dimmer for residents with less than a four-year college degree. While unemployment is down to 4 percent for people with at least a bachelor's diploma, it's 15 percent for those with some college, and 18 percent for those with only a high-school eduation.
A family budget calculator from the Economic Policy Institute suggests that a two-parent, two-child household in the Washington area needs to earn $89,643 per year to cover the costs of housing, food, transportation, education, taxes, and other living expenses. This, too, reinforces how much more difficult it's become to get by in DC. Full-time employment at $12.62 per hour translates into annual pay of just $26,250.
Some policy changes aimed at leveling things out are coming into effect. The District's minimum wage is scheduled to increase to $10.50 per hour this year and $11.50 per hour next year, and employers are no longer permitted to ask about job applicants' criminal records before a job offer is extended. But DCFPI still prescribes several measures that haven't been enacted by the city's leaders, including expanded food stamp benefits, paid family leave, subsidized child care, and an increase in the minimum wage for tipped workers, which is stuck at $2.77 per hour.
And there might not be much more relief on the immediate horizon. Private-sector jobs are increasing in DC, but not in a way that's likely to alleviate low wages and chronic underemployment. Since 2007, the biggest growth has been in frequently low-income professions like education and health services and hospitality. Meanwhile, the government payroll is shrinking: After peaking in 2011 at about 247,000 federal and local government jobs, the number fell to about 237,000 in 2013. The District has only added 3,000 professional and business services since 2007, the study reads.
Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.
On Wednesday, January 21, supporters and friends of The SEED School of Washington, DC, and The SEED Foundation gathered at the home of Brooke and Gina Coburn to officially welcome new Head of School, Dr. Adrian Manuel. Dr. Manuel brings 14 years’ experience working in urban school communities, and was recognized for his exceptional leadership by education expert Rick Hess in his book, Cage-Busting Leadership.
See photos from the event in the slideshow.
Members of a pro-gun-control group want Washington Fox affiliate WTTG to dismiss reporter Emily Miller for her speech last week at a pro-gun rally in Richmond. A petition, being circulated by the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, takes umbrage with Miller's longtime advocacy for looser gun regulations, much of which she's documented during her career in journalism.
"In its Code of Ethics, the Society of Professional Journalists states that journalists should 'act independently' by avoiding 'conflicts of interest, real or perceived' and 'political…activities that may compromise integrity or impartiality,'" the petition reads. "By this standard, Emily Miller has no business being the Chief Investigative Reporter for WTTG."
The petition goes on to say that Miller's reportage, which often includes stories about changes to DC's gun laws, verges into outright advocacy, citing her book, Emily Gets Her Gun: ...But Obama Wants to Take Yours, a 2013 chronicle of her becoming a registered handgun owner while living in the District.
"This is the behavior of an activist and pundit, not a journalist," the petition reads. "Given her record, DC residents can’t trust that Miller will provide objective coverage on matters of concern to their city. If WTTG is at all concerned with journalistic integrity, it is time for them part ways with her."
Miller trekked down to Richmond on January 19 to address the Virginia Citizens Defense League during the gun-rights group's lobbying day at the Virginia State Capitol. In her remarks, she—perhaps jokingly—disqualified the District from being part of the nation of which it is the capital on account of its relatively stringent firearms laws.
“I came from DC this morning, which is not part of America, because they don’t recognize the Second Amendment," Miller said.
Miller, who did not respond to e-mailed questions about the petition, did not receive any compensation for her Richmond speech.
Meanwhile, DC's gun-control regime is loosening up a bit. WAMU reports that since October, when a federal judge threw out a city ban on concealed handguns, the Metropolitan Police Department has granted eight concealed-carry licenses, which are awarded on a case-by-case basis.
Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.
This is Mika, a 3-year-old goldendoodle owned by Washingtonian food and wine editor Ann Limpert. In this photo, Mika is prepared for a day of sport in the cold and is "as thrilled as she looks," Limpert tells Capital Comment in an e-mail. No dog boots, Ann? "We tried the boots, but she ate one almost immediately."
It's been a light year, snow-wise, for the Washington area this winter, but I figure that with this morning's snow delays and closures, many people may have finally had the opportunity today to make their pets as happy as Mika is here. If you did, or if you've managed to kit out your dog at some other point this winter, please send me a photo (I'm email@example.com) or tag @washingtonianmag on Instagram.
Here are two pictures of Colby, a 7-year-old shih tzu from Arlington. For some reason, Colby will not wear this fine outfit outside the house, Milissa Leavey reports.
This is Remi, a 6-year-old Yorkie from Alexandria. Remi enjoys wearing winter gear, and "the more layers the better," Cristina Caballero says.
This is Nacho, who lives with Isabel Lara in the District. Nacho sports a kicky tartan puffy coat.
Augie here is ready for the next big snow -- "Or a poetry reading at a coffee shop," Lisa De Pasqualewrites.
Doesn't Gabi Holtzlook splendid and autumnal?
Here's Lacey, a goldendoodle, in a pink hoodie that could chase away any storm.
In recent months, Washingtonians have taken the air in a pop-up “parklet” and popped into a pop-up cat cafe. Some have even attended pop-up weddings at the National Museum of Natural History. Where did the pop-up revolution come from?
Pop-up stores caught on in the 1990s as quickie marriages of convenience between Halloween costumers and Christmas shops and landlords with vacant storefronts: The flash retailers got a no-commitment place to sell reindeer headbands; real-estate owners got a few weeks’ rent for fallow properties.
In 2002, big-box retailers such as Target, tiptoeing into urban markets, experimented with temporary locations, as did high-end labels like Commes de Garçons. By 2009, when Target’s pop-up debuted in Georgetown, the Washington Post was still appending “so-called” to the term. But the qualifier has come off as a blitz of restaurants, art happenings, and, recently, Ferguson, Missouri-related protests put it into circulation as a noun and a verb—Chez le Commis will pop up at Le Bon Cafe on Nov. 17, Washington City Paper announced last fall—and, at last, as a cliché. “At some point, marketing people started saying, ‘If we call it a pop-up, people will come,’” says Svetlana Legetic of the online magazine Brightest Young Things. “It became such a catchall that it means nothing.”
If “pop-up’s” fizz has generally gone flat, in Washington it’s downright negative. In 2007, a rowhouse renovation at Upshur Street and New Hampshire Avenue added an extra floor, breaking the street’s otherwise even roofline; on the Prince of Petworth blog (now called PoPville), a commenter bemoaned the “third-floor popups.” For NIMBY activists, “pop-up” has since become weaponized—and capitalized, as in former DC Council member Jim Graham’s rendering, POP-UP, when he wrote in 2013 on a U Street listserv about his plan to ban pop-ups, evoking James Bond’s villainous opponent, SPECTRE.
Last June, a developer told the Post, “I put too much thought and work into my homes to call it a pop-up.”
But it’s this sense of a glib putdown that seems destined to live on in Washington. Like those annoying ads that pop up on cheap websites, it’s gotten under our skin.
Harry Reid is in winter. No longer Senate majority leader and recovering from a freak accident involving home exercise equipment, the Nevada Democrat "has been burning up the phones with up to 50 calls per day, trying to make clear that he’s still in charge," Manu Raju writes in Politico.
Last spring it was Vice President Joe Biden's turn to experience winter in Politico, "still basically a happy warrior," Glenn Thrush wrote, but trapped "between the presidential dreams he can’t quite relinquish and the shrinking parameters of a job he described to me as derivative.”
Newt Gingrich: That guy totally was in winter, Alexander Burns reported for Politico in February 2012.
Do you seriously think Representative Charlie Rangel isn't going to experience winter in Politico? Baby, it was cold outside in July 2010.
Politico's semiregular embrace of this headline metaphor is not unique to the Arlington-based publication. In the past decade, the Washington Post has written about Robin Williams in winter, called Plácido Domingo a "Lion in Winter" for his performance in Handel's Tamerlano, suggested the white flowers of sweet box to gardeners who desire "Fragrant Lions in Winter," and worried about the cold-weather prospects of "The Jaguars in Winter" as the Jacksonville Jaguars faced the Green Bay Packers at home in December 2004. (Jacksonville squeaked it out, 28-25.)
I'd be amazed if Washingtonian hadn't used a similar headline in its 50-year run (James Goldman's play The Lion in Winter was first performed in 1966, and the Peter O'Toole/Katharine Hepburn film version was released in 1968), but Nexis didn't return anything. When Washingtonian Editor Michael Schaffer edited Washington City Paper, the alt-weekly used the treatment for a story about Marion Barry. The closest thing I could find to a recent version of the headline here was a story by Marisa M. Kashino about why this time of year is pretty good for house-shopping.
Just in time for the Super Bowl, the Oneida Indian Nation is back with another ad in support of its campaign to get Washington's NFL team to change its name to something that does not offend Native Americans. The 38-second clip, titled "Take It Away," shows how the team—and its fans—would appear if team's well-known logo was removed from the burgundy-and-gold uniforms and merchandise.
The video was produced for the Oneidas' "Change the Mascot" campaign by goodness Mfg., a California advertising agency that recently conducted a poll finding that while four out of five Americans would not use "redskin" in conversation with a Native American, 72 percent are comfortable with the term as a name for a football team.
Goodness was also behind last year's "Proud to Be" ad, which also debuted around the Super Bowl, and was later broadcast on television during the NBA Finals. "Take It Away" uses footage from 2012 of then-healty quarterback Robert Griffin III scoring on a 76-yard touchdown run against the Minnesota Vikings, and jumping into a passel of exuberant Washington fans. In every shot, Griffin's and his teammates' helmets, as well as the fans' gear, are scrubbed of their logos and team names.
"Our ‘Take It Away’ spot demonstrates that changing the name would not take anything away from the fan experience," the Oneidas say in a press release. "By keeping the mascot, the Washington team’s ownership is forcing fans and players to support a dictionary-defined racial slur. Washington fans and players shouldn’t be put in that position. They should be able to root for a team that honors the most basic notions of civility and respect."
Don't expect this ad to climb down from the internet and appear on broadcast television, though. Besides the exorbitant cost of ad time during the Super Bowl—$4.5 million for a 30-second spot—"Take It Away" also uses NFL game footage without the league's consent. But the ad will be promoted on YouTube to Washington-area users over the next few weeks. At the same time, the Oneida Indian Nation is also sponosoring a robo-call campaign in the area, featuring a message recorded by two fans of the team who support the push to change the name.
As always, this is the part where we remind you that Dan Snyder has said he will "never" change the name of his NFL team.
Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.
Did being famous for being famous—credited to reality stars like Kim Kardashian—actually start in Washington?
On January 24, 1882, at the Arlington Hotel on DC’s Vermont Avenue, an uncomfortable meeting took place between British aesthete Oscar Wilde and novelist Henry James. At the time, Wilde—who had yet to write anything of note—was drawing huge crowds to his lectures on art, and in society he was cutting a lascivious figure in tight velvet coats and lavender gloves. Author David Friedman, who tells the tale in his new book, Wilde in America, says James and his friends disapproved of Wilde. Clover Adams, a Washington socialite, referred to Wilde as a “noodle”—a sly knock on his masculinity. Friedman suspects James went to the Arlington Hotel anyway because “he knew this was a dividing line between the past, when you became famous for what you did, and the new age, in which you could be famous just for existing.” James’s visit, Friedman speculates, was a genuflection to this new mode of celebrity.
It seems a kind of historical revisionism to link Wilde with the likes of the Kardashians, but the hallmarks of his approach are certainly still visible. Wilde cozied up to the right sort of people, only to create a commotion—Friedman compares Wilde’s lectures to comedian Russell Brand’s 2013 appearance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, when he ripped his interviewers for their shallow questions. Lady Gaga or Ellen DeGeneres would recognize in Adams’s nervousness about Wilde the power of forcing people to face their prejudices.
What Oscar Wilde had that today’s “famous for nothing” may lack is an endgame. After his successful US launch, Wilde leveraged the attention into an enduring literary career as the author of The Importance of Being Earnest, one of the funniest plays in English. Kim Kardashian’s endgame, by contrast, is already—so to speak—behind her.
Our fair city has plenty of wonderful things to recommend it to tourists and lifers alike: museums, restaurants, monuments, you name it. But live here long enough and you find out some experiences just aren't all they're cracked up to be. We've got a few ideas for what those are, but we want to know what you think. So tell us in the poll below: What's the most overrated activity or institution Washington has to offer? Pick as many as you think apply—and if something isn't on the list that you think deserves to be, let us know in the comments.