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Melissa Chiu 

DIRECTOR, HIRSHHORN MUSEUM AND SCULPTURE GARDEN

Portrait by Jeff Elkins

Chiu, the former director of the Asia Society in New York, discusses her new role at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C.

 

I started in October, just over six months ago. I think there are some wonderful opportunities to be able to build on [the museum’s] extraordinary collection, iconic building, and great reputation for groundbreaking exhibitions, as well as its existing 40-year history.

A couple of things I’m looking at: to really build out the collection to be truly international and global, and looking at how we can really see the Hirshhorn as a creative hub for the intersection between art and technology. I think museums have a real opportunity globally to give visitors access to greater information about artwork, but also the virtual community. Thinking about how we can commission artists to really think about the architecture of the Hirshhorn itself is an important piece of the strategy, as well as to include the sculpture garden. In the 1990s, there was a fantastic Krzysztof Wodiczko slide projection commission, and then even more recently a Doug Aitken video projection right onto the rounded exterior of the building [designed by Gordon Bunshaft].

Part of my work so far has been to assemble the right team, so I’ve brought on a chief curator, Stéphane Aquin, and a curator-at-large, Janni Jetzer. Now I think we have the right group to complement the talent and expertise of the five curators who were already on staff. We’ve begun mapping out our five-year plan for our exhibitions and programs, and one of the things that we’re focusing on is how to actually build connections between public and educational programs and exhibitions with our collections, all with the overarching view to make the Hirshhorn a 21st-century museum.

It does certainly bear the responsibility of being the national museum of contemporary art, but I don’t think we take that as necessarily one that is limited. Our new international brief for the Hirshhorn is more about how to look at contemporary art in terms of new ideas, new scholarship around new art, as well as how to connect the 20th century to the 21st. We’re at this transitional moment between the 20th and 21st centuries, and feeling that in a very palpable way, and there are artists who are able to provide insight into that transition, which I think is very important. 

If you look at museums and the way that they’ve developed over the last 20 years, it’d be true to say that they’re much more interested in connecting with visitors and audiences than ever before. Most museums are very attuned to attendance and how exhibitions can build greater engagement and connection with individuals. One of the real issues that many museums have been dealing with is how to engage Millennials, which is the next biggest demographic group after Baby Boomers. Most museums are interested in showing and knowing that their survival depends on the importance that this new generation places on museums. 

Today, there are much greater demands on curators in museums to be familiar with world history—not just American and European history—and world art. That’s a very positive thing, which will cause us to be much more open to learning about the world. Artists today are also looking at cross-disciplines. No one thinks of themselves as a painter or a sculptor anymore; that kind of experimentation of cross-genre work is one that’s revealing for us—to bear witness to how a new generation is really articulating their vision to the world. There are much fewer hierarchies of values in place today than there were previously.

Your personal experience will always inform the kind of decisions you make professionally, and I consider myself a great beneficiary of witnessing a great cultural change in the perception of Asia. It’s a really momentous change; when we talk about transitional moments, again, it comes back to that. So in some ways I think of my own background as maybe allowing a greater sensitivity to some of those changes, when the world is opening up in a different way. —As told to Aileen Kwun

 

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