Hubert Burda Media

Melissa Chiu on leading the way in the art world

Museum Director Melissa Chiu aims to establish the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden as one of the world’s major art exhibitors.

Something strange is happening at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC. Inside each of six large Infinity Mirror Rooms on display, electric lights – seemingly receding into the distance – create a sense of vast space. Outdoors, in the Sculpture Garden, a massive yellow pumpkin flecked with black dots entrances and amuses visitors, and the Instagram pack broadcasts a flurry of images from the museum’s grounds. 

No, this isn’t some sort of new outdoor carnival. Nor has the Hirshhorn lost its sense of what art is. Far from it. The museum’s first exhibition of 2017, running until mid-May, just happens to showcase the work of Yayoi Kusama, a Japanese artist who for 65 years has been creating, writing, staging and performing a wide range of influential art experiences, and Museum Director Melissa Chiu, who has been an admirer of Kusama’s work for decades, believes that this is the right time to give the artist her full due. 

“She’s an extraordinary figure who is 88 [this month] and still paints every day,” says Chiu. “With this show we wanted to re-situate her. Time magazine put her forward as one of the most important artists of the year. It’s timely to think of her as a historical figure as well. This is the kind of show that will gain a lot of momentum.” 

It’s also the kind of show Chiu envisioned when she became director of the Hirshhorn in 2014 following a decade in the same role at the Asia Society in New York, during which the Australian was responsible for opening 10 exhibitions a year, including rare presentations of art from Iran in the 1960s and ’70s, and paintings created in the aftermath of China’s 1949 revolution. In her dual role as senior vice-president of global arts and cultural programmes with the Asia.

Society, she also published several books, including Contemporary Art in Asia: A Critical Reader.

Yet there were initial difficulties for Chiu when she became just the sixth director of the Hirshhorn since its opening in 1974. Her struggles included a mass exodus of board members due to a controversial art project that had been aborted even before she arrived. There were also numerous media complaints that the new director was spending too much time away from Washington and fund-raising in New York with high-profile benefactors (the Hirshhorn is part of the Smithsonian Institute and firmly set in Washington’s prominent National Mall). Hirshhorn board members, vital to the museum’s future, were dwindling away at a drastic rate. 

It says a great deal about Chiu’s abilities and determination that – even in such a high-pressure environment – she has turned the Hirshhorn around in less than three years, and boosted the number of staff and board members, the latter from nine to 29. “The board of trustees is really the Hirshhorn family,” she says. “I saw that as a real priority: to build out its board because they are the great advocates. They support much of what the museum does. We now include board members from Hong Kong, Dubai, Sydney and Jakarta, for example. We look for people who are enthusiastic about contemporary art and enthusiastic about the Hirshhorn. I brought on a group of very committed people who want to see the Hirshhorn succeed.” 

Among the new board appointees is Xiang- Dong Yang, Hong Kong-based managing director and chairman of asset-management experts Carlyle Asia Partners. Chiu hopes such new appointees will not only become energetic advocates for art in Asia, but might also be supportive should Hirshhorn exhibits be loaned to Hong Kong’s new art museums, most notably M+ in West Kowloon. “I first met XD when I came on board,” Chiu says. “His work is connected through Carlyle as he comes to Washington, DC a lot. It seemed like a natural fit. He has a collaborative sense in what we’re trying to do.” 

Yang expresses delight at becoming a Hirshhorn board member. “I’m excited to support the museum’s mission of engaging artists and audiences around the world, and look forward to using my background and experience in the Chinese cultural landscape to help the Hirshhorn continue to champion the most influential, exciting, surprising and humbling contemporary artists,” he says. “Today, the art world is more global than ever and my role on the board is a reflection of this.” 

Now, with a firm foundation in place at the Hirshhorn, Chiu is looking forward to growth. She’s conscious, however, that – while the board would like to see the museum as a contemporary of international institutions such as the Tate Modern, Guggenheim, Whitney and Moma – many of its 600,000 or so visitors a year are tourists who have come to the capital primarily for the major monuments and the nearby National Air and Space Museum. And with more than 12,000 artworks over three floors and 60,000 square feet of exhibition space at the Hirshhorn, there’s a lot to take in. 

“Although we have a devoted group of art-world folks visiting, many are coming to see the national museums,” Chiu says. “That has an impact on how we think about our exhibitions and highlight the real masterworks in our collection. We have one of the best collections of European and American 20th-century art.” 

Citing the exponential growth in contemporary art in recent years, Chiu is thinking about how the Hirshhorn can lead the field, be it through exhibitions, retrospectives or new technology. To this end, she says the museum is in the process of utilising audio and visual guides to help people understand art better. A current exhibition showcases suspended animation with a focus on computer technology. “We’re planning three to five years in advance,” Chiu says. “We’re developing an international programme – one that speaks of the Hirshhorn as a real innovator. We’re trying to connect to the world on different levels and in different ways.” 

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Chiu is also looking at future exhibitions with a curatorial narrative. She says that part of this stems from her childhood in Darwin and Sydney – a time when she grew to appreciate art and art history. She believes that a culture’s history can be understood through its art, and today, as the Hirshhorn doesn’t depend on ticket revenue for its survival, it’s a narrative she’s exploring, no matter where an artist is from. “We would be thinking, is there an artist who hasn’t had a major retrospective yet? Can we do something that allows people to think differently about their work? Our steady attendance numbers enable us to think carefully in terms of allowing us to bring artists that challenge people’s perceptions.” 

As Chiu seeks to spread the influence of the Hirshhorn throughout the world, citing Asia and Latin America as two key regions, it won’t be a matter of if Chinese contemporary artists get a major exhibition at the museum, but when. “I don’t think you can have a conversation about modern art today without showing Chinese art,” she says. “Geopolitically and the way the world is heading, that political relationship is one of the most important in the 21st century.” 

Chiu also believes that as art and history are often intertwined, one only gets a true perspective with the passing of time, and she vividly recalls her first visit to the museum, when she was surprised to discover Alexander Calder mobiles kept in storage. “I thought I knew the collection,” she says. “But I had no idea. And the building is really a unique building. It’s just over 40 years old. As we move into the 21st century, it’s a testament about a moment of time, [one] that people will understand better as time goes on.” 

With that said, it’s Chiu’s belief that the Hirshhorn is more important than ever – to a nation, to a culture, to a time and to the world. She cites the fact that museum benefactor Joseph H Hirshhorn was a Latvian-Jewish immigrant to the US. “That’s an example of the openness of this country,” she says. “Our mission is to share that. We’re at this moment of great change. It’s the transition from the 20th to the 21st century and you can see it in this cultural way that you can’t in other places. 

“Museums like ours can really play a leadership role in this.”