December 1, 2023

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Hirshhorn breaks ground on long-debated sculpture garden redesign

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The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden broke ground on its much-debated sculpture garden renovation on Wednesday at a ceremony presided over by first lady Jill Biden, artists and museum leaders. Speaking to a crowd seated near works by Henry Moore and Tony Cragg in the garden on a cool fall afternoon, the first lady, fresh off the midterm campaign trail, reflected on the power of art in chaotic times and praised the renovation for its goal of broadening the museum’s reach.

“This project will create a place which will draw more people to the treasures inside, where they are welcomed to stop and sit and reflect,” Biden said. “This garden invites everyone to take a breath, look within ourselves and experience life in the moment.”

Designed by Japanese artist and architect Hiroshi Sugimoto, the project, estimated to cost tens of millions of dollars, will connect the sculpture garden to the museum’s plaza and building via an underground passageway, which architect Gordon Bunshaft included in the garden’s original 1974 design. It will also increase the amount of art from Joseph Hirshhorn’s foundational gift on view in the east garden by 50 percent. The garden will close next spring for the renovation, which is expected to take about two years.

Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III and Hirshhorn director Melissa Chiu took part in Wednesday’s event, as did artists Jeff Koons, Adam Pendleton and Laurie Anderson, all of whom have relationships with the museum.

The garden has seen a few evolutions over the years. Landscape architect Lester Collins redesigned it in 1981, adding walls that divided the space into open-air galleries. In 1993, James Urban reconfigured the space further and added more greenery.

After Sugimoto laid out his vision, critics expressed concerns about his proposal to use stacked stone for the garden’s inner partition wall, saying it was not faithful to the original brutalist design, and his plans to alter the size of the original reflecting pool. Discussions went on for almost three years. Ultimately, the museum decided to rebuild the partition wall with concrete and use stacked stone for inner galleries. And rather than altering the reflecting pool, they will add a second water feature, which can be drained to accommodate performances. The project was finally approved last December.

That struggle wasn’t brushed aside on Wednesday. Sugimoto, who was the subject of a retrospective at the Hirshhorn in 2006 and also revamped the museum lobby in 2018, told attendees he was “amazed” at the backlash against his vision. He said he had many moments when he thought it would never come together.

“Now, I’m standing at the groundbreaking and I keep thinking, ‘This is a miracle.’ ” The architect went on to thank both his supporters — and his opponents. “You taught me how to survive in Washington, D.C.,” he added, laughing.

In a historic city and museum industry famously resistant to change, it’s a time of rethinking and reimagining. That was evident at the Hirshhorn on Wednesday, where even as polished guests in patterned winter coats sipped champagne and bopped to the JoGo Project, the museum’s exterior remained under construction as scaffolding lined the walls and a bright yellow crane was parked beside the building.

With the groundbreaking, the Hirshhorn, which is the only Smithsonian museum embedded in the National Mall, begins the second phase of a major revitalization that will also include an interior renovation announced in October. And there could be more changes coming to the Mall. Last month, the Smithsonian released its preferred locations for the new National Museum of the American Latino and the American Women’s History Museum, both of which it hopes to place on the Mall, though not everyone agrees with that proposal.

This shifting landscape raises questions about how to remain true to artistic visions — whether it’s architect Bunshaft’s 20th-century vision for the Hirshhorn or planner Pierre L’Enfant’s 18th-century vision for the Mall — while also pushing these historic places into the future. The Smithsonian on Wednesday underscored its belief that changes can elevate these sites to meet a moment that prioritizes diversity and access.

Opinion | Yes, the museums honoring women and Latinos belong on the National Mall

Bunch praised Sugimoto’s plan, saying it “will transform this garden into a space that better accommodates larger audiences, accommodates performances — in essence, makes the Hirshhorn accessible to the millions of people who stroll past it on the National Mall. What I’m excited about is that the Mall has always been a place that has changed, that has evolved.”

Seeking to lure more visitors, the Hirshhorn will widen the north entryway to the garden from 20 feet to 60 feet with the hopes of improving visibility of the sculpture garden and the passageway to the museum.

“As the only major modern art museum free and open to the public, we are committed to radical accessibility in every sense of the term,” said Chiu, Hirshhorn’s director. Speaking to The Washington Post after the event, she added that “the combination of art, architecture and landscape design is very unique in the new design and the goal is to make people feel more connected to the art.”

As they forged ahead with the project, the past was present. Sculpture has a unique legacy at the Hirshhorn, whose founding donor, Joseph Hirshhorn, was known for amassing bronzes by Auguste Rodin and Henry Moore. Bunshaft wanted the museum’s doughnut-shaped building to function like a giant work of three-dimensional art, standing over smaller works in the garden.

Sugimoto said that Bunshaft’s original design was influenced by Zen gardens and inspired his 21st-century redesign, which makes use of pre-modern Japanese aesthetics. “It is picking up where Bunshaft left off.”

After the event, Sugimoto pointed to Jacques Lipchitz’s “Figure,” which had a sample of stacked-stone wall behind it. “To praise a modern masterpiece like this, what’s the best background? It must be pre-modern wall. The background is old and the sculpture is new,” he told The Post.

Many also called attention to Biden’s presence, which honored Lady Bird Johnson, the first lady who played an important role in the Hirshhorn’s founding. Biden has been forging something of her own arts legacy — she spoke at the Molina Family Latino Gallery opening in June and visited the African American Museum to celebrate its post-vaccine reopening in 2021. (She’s also a known fan of artist Mary Page Evans.)

But in her remarks, Biden framed the moment as less about big pictures and legacies and more about the personal experience of art. She described visiting the Alex Katz exhibition at the Guggenheim after a hard day campaigning.

Walking through it, “I felt myself breathe out the buzz of the day,” she said. “In a world that asks us to sprint from moment to moment — from meeting to meeting — art stops us in our tracks. It feeds our spirits when we’re hungry for something more.”

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