First Lady Jill Biden Breaks Ground for the Hirshhorn’s Revitalized Sculpture Garden

Architect Hiroshi Sugimoto is creating a welcoming new design for the Smithsonian’s modern and contemporary art museum

First Lady Jill Biden at Grooundbreaking
First lady Jill Biden and Hirshhorn Museum Director Melissa Chiu, flanked by artists and dignataries, hosted a groundbreaking ceremony to begin the renovation of the Sculpture Garden. Matt McClain, The Washington Post via Getty Images

As a group of Smithsonian leaders; contemporary artists including Laurie Anderson, Jeff Koons and Adam Pendleton; and first lady Jill Biden each ceremonially lifted a shovel of dirt on November 16, it was not to bury the past but to signal the building of a new era for the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

Biden, an art lover, has kept up a tradition of White House support for the museum, one that started with Lady Bird Johnson’s personal friendship with the museum’s founder Joseph Hirshhorn—a friendship that led to the initial gift and the establishment of the museum, which focuses on modern and contemporary art. Quoting Johnson, Biden said that art is a means of contemplation. The Sculpture Garden “invites everyone to take a breath, look within ourselves and experience life in the moment,” she said at the ceremony.

A rendering depicts the expanded water feature and art platform in the central garden, along with a view of Hiroshi Sugimoto's revitalization of the underground passageway to the museum. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
This rendering offers a view of how the west garden might appear for after-dark events and happenings.  Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
The east garden will provide additional space to host monumental commissions and for the display of the museum's modernist bronzes, while the central garden offers opportunities for performance and time-based art. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

The first lady—along with Steve Case, the chair of the Smithsonian Board of Regents; Daniel Sallick, the chair of the Hirshhorn Board of Trustees; and some 400 dignitaries, benefactors, contemporary artists, architects, politicians and ambassadors—gathered to drink champagne, listen to the Washington, D.C.-based go-go band the JoGo Project and celebrate the groundbreaking for the reimagining of the Sculpture Garden, a half-century after it first opened and four decades after its last update.

The groundbreaking is the culmination of a three-year process—undertaken because the garden needed to evolve, Hirshhorn Director Melissa Chiu told attendees.

“We see how the most important artists of our time are working today across every media and exploring technology and innovation in every form,” including video, sound and performance, Chiu said. The Covid-19 pandemic has also shown that audiences can and should be engaged in new ways, and that there is a “need for flexible open-air spaces,” she added.

The renovation, designed by Japanese artist and architect Hiroshi Sugimoto, 74, is expected to take 18 to 24 months to complete.

Jill Biden with Melissa Chiu
The Sculpture Garden, said first lady Jill Biden (above with Melissa Chiu, the museum's director), “invites everyone to take a breath, look within ourselves and experience life in the moment.”  © Tony Powell, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

Currently the sunken garden, which contains some 30 works ranging from Auguste Rodin’s 1884 Burghers of Calais to Yoko Ono’s 2007 Wish Tree for Washington, D.C.—is not readily seen by tourists strolling the National Mall. Sugimoto’s design will feature a much larger and more inviting opening on the Mall side. Visitors will also have direct access to the museum via a reopened underground entrance that has been closed for 30 years. The design plans also include a water feature that can be drained to accommodate performances.

Koons—whose 1987 stainless steel sculpture Kiepenkerl is located at the Sculpture Garden’s Jefferson Drive entrance—says the new design will make the collection more accessible, and the reopened underground entrance will draw people inside. “It’s a way to have people become engaged really at their own pace,” he said.

Sugimoto told attendees that original Sculpture Garden designer Gordon Bunshaft (a partner with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill who also designed the Hirshhorn Museum) was strongly influenced by Japanese gardens. Sugimoto’s redesign “incorporates my own Sugimoto-style Japanese aesthetics,” he said. “It picks up where Bunshaft left off, creating a space for exploration and a place where contemporary can dialogue with the past.”

Many critics did not take kindly to Sugimoto’s plans when they were first made public. “I was amazed by the backlash against my vision,” Sugimoto said at the ceremony. Given the pushback, he thought the project would fail. He happily thanked both supporters and those who opposed his redesign. “You hardened my will and taught me how to survive in Washington, D.C.,” he said.

It seemed that nothing was going to dampen the celebration, which was kicked off with a five-minute performance by Ami Yamasaki, a Japanese visual and voice artist whom Sugimoto had introduced to Chiu. Yamasaki vibrated, modulated, shrieked, whistled, rasped, growled and sang, mesmerizing the attendees.

Secretary of the Smithsonian Lonnie G. Bunch III couldn’t contain himself. “I am unbelievably excited to be here,” he said.

“Today we celebrate a moment of transformation,” he added. “A moment that I think will serve the public for the next 50 years.”

Sugimoto’s design will better accommodate larger audiences and performances, and “in essence, makes the Hirshhorn accessible to the millions of people who stroll past it on the National Mall,” Bunch said.

Biden discussed how a visit to the Guggenheim Museum in New York during a midterm campaign trip had calmed her and shut out the “buzz” of the day, pointing out that it was crucial to have spaces like the Sculpture Garden.

“Whether we visit this garden just for a moment or stop for a while and contemplate what lies beyond the limits of our imaginations, we shine a little bit brighter when we are here,” she said. “And when we leave we carry that light with us, and see the world around us in new, more beautiful colors.”

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