In Praise of Modern Art

With a growing collection and innovative programs, the Hirshhorn museum celebrates its first 25 years

The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Smithsonian's museum for modern and contemporary art, will soon be 25 years old. Like the nearby Freer and Sackler galleries on the Mall, the museum is the result of a single individual's deep passion for art. Joseph H. Hirshhorn (1899-1981), a Latvian-born, self-made American financier, donated his much-coveted collection to the Smithsonian in 1966.

Congress had flirted with the idea of a national museum of modern art in the late 1930s, approving a plan to complement the National Gallery of Art's focus on old masters, but World War II intervened. Two decades later, Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley, with the aid of President and Mrs. Lyndon B. Johnson, persuaded Hirshhorn to donate his collection to the nation. On October 1, 1974, the Smithsonian officially added a dynamic, ring-shaped building bearing the benefactor's name, and surrounded by nearly five landscaped acres, to its growing complex of museums on the Mall.

True to its genesis as a void-filler, the Hirshhorn's overarching mission has been "to encourage and develop a greater understanding and appreciation of modern art." Its annual attendance has always ranked high among American art museums (1998's visitor count was more than 850,000). Its exhibitions over the past quarter-century have been instructive, ranging from an exploration of foreign-born artists' contributions to American modernism to a trend-spotting survey of counter-modernist art. In response to glasnost, the Hirshhorn brought Americans long-hidden examples of revolution-era Russian and Soviet paintings. It presented important retrospectives for such established figures as Alberto Giacometti and Francis Bacon, while introducing the work of countless younger artists.

From the outset, Hirshhorn curators have carefully orchestrated the permanent collection to make the story of the art of our time clear and stimulating. In renovated galleries on three floors, the collection has also grown in scope over the years. One reason for this has been the steady stream of additional donations. In response to Hirshhorn's insistence that the museum be free, dynamic, fluid and open to changing tastes, the core holdings associated with his benefactions — including his numerous gifts of art after 1966 and his 1981 bequest of some 5,500 other works — have been expanded and updated through frequent acquisitions. For example, an early stringed figure by Henry Moore was acquired a few years back from the renowned British sculptor's family. To celebrate the acquisition, the museum mounted a small show telling the story of the work's creation and delineating its place in 20th-century art. Curators are constantly engaged in such research and interpretation for the public.

If the Hirshhorn offers the opportunity to "rediscover" established modern artists like Moore, it also serves as a kind of laboratory for contemporary visual expression. Because much of what the museum exhibits is contemporary, visitors are variously pleased, troubled, dazzled or perplexed by what they see. But the Hirshhorn tries to maintain an atmosphere that is exciting, nonthreatening — and never boring. Its docents train hard and lead stimulating, creative tours. Families make art a collective experience using the innovative Family Guide, a publication that encourages questions, responses, role-playing and other transgenerational interactions. In the popular "Young at Art" programs, children create their own artworks with their parents' participation. To offer fresh perspectives alongside the curatorial viewpoints, art students and artists are often invited to give gallery talks. There is a strong focus on outreach, with training for teachers to help them translate issues embodied by objects on view into useful material for classroom discussion. Culled from international festivals, films as art have also proven a successful component of the Hirshhorn's drive to foster understanding and appreciation of the art of our time.

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.