Ways of Seeing

Inviting artists to help showcase its collections is just one way the Hirshhorn Museum is expanding its vision

Bold initiatives by a new director are revitalizing the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Smithsonian's museum of modern and contemporary art. Even if you visited last summer, come back this winter and you'll see how dramatically things are changing at our most visually innovative museum. (Elevated on huge piers, the ring-shaped building, with a spectacular high-shooting fountain in the middle, seems to float above its plaza, offering views right through to the Sculpture Garden.)

One immediately noticeable change will be the absence of Alexander Calder's wonderful sculpture Two Discs, which for years has greeted visitors as they enter the Hirshhorn from Independence Avenue, one of Washington's busiest boulevards, within sight of the Capitol. The sculpture is being temporarily removed for restoration. In its place will be a new work by Miami-based sculptor Mark Handforth, a large, brightly painted aluminum star. No doubt the star will inspire passersby to contemplate: Has it fallen from the cosmos? Or, with its left "leg" seemingly extended, did it somehow walk onto the Hirshhorn plaza? Installation is scheduled for late this year.

Handforth's star will complement the Hirshhorn's newest exhibition, "The Uncertainty of Objects and Ideas: Recent Sculpture." This show presents works by nine emerging sculptors who give physical form to such intangible concepts as a state of mind, a scientific theory or a physical phenomenon.

The Hirshhorn is one of the world's most visited contemporary art museums. Not only does it have an exceptional collection of 20th- and 21st-century art, but it strives to advance artists' ideas in ways beyond just exhibiting their works. The museum also strives to engage visitors, and offers a wide array of public programs: Podcasts of artist interviews; Artist on Artist gallery tours; art workshops for young visitors, designed and led by working artists; a film program, featuring independent films as well as ones by and about artists; and evening programs, including late night "After Hours" events with musical performances.

With a new exhibition series called "Ways of Seeing," the Hirshhorn has taken a dynamic turn, inviting artists and other creative individuals from outside the museum, such as filmmakers and architects, to offer their perspectives on the collection.

The first "Ways of Seeing" exhibition, which will be on view through April 2007, was created by conceptual artist John Baldessari, one of the most influential American artists working and teaching today. Over the past year, in collaboration with Hirshhorn staff, "guest curator" Baldessari combed through the museum's 12,000 objects to choose artworks and arrange them according to his own unique vision. The result is a refreshing display of thoughtful pairings and juxtapositions, including works by some lesser-known artists. I suspect the show will surprise and delight visitors even as it stretches traditional museum display practices.

Art, artists and audiences are all crucial elements in the Hirshhorn mix. So we invite you to visit. The new ways of seeing you discover may be John Baldessari's, those of the nine contemporary sculptors, or best of all, your own.

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