On Monday night, Washington D.C.’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden held its 40th anniversary gala in, of all places, Lower Manhattan, on the 68th floor of 4 World Trade Center. The gala honored 40 living artists—among them Marina Abramovic, Lynda Benglis, Chuck Close, Dan Colen, Mark di Suvero, and Shirin Neshat—who had previously shown their work at the Hirshhorn. The museum’s decision—or, really, the decision of its new director as of last year, Melissa Chiu—to hold a fancy fundraiser in New York rather than in the institution’s hometown received no small amount of criticism from the D.C. press. The Washington Post’s Philip Kennicott called the gala’s location “deeply troubling,” adding that it was “a snub, and a distressing indication that she doesn’t understand the purpose, the history or the identity of the museum she now leads.” When the New York Times broke the news of the gala’s location in August, Chiu offered a pre-emptive defense, claiming that because the museum’s founding donor, Joseph H. Hirshhorn, was raised in Brooklyn and staged the first major show of his collection at the Guggenheim in New York in 1962, doing the event in New York was “a fitting tribute to the Hirshhorn’s roots.”
Critics were silenced somewhat when the museum announced that it had raised more than $1.55 million in support of the anniversary celebration, “the most successful fundraising gala in the museum’s history.” During her brief tenure, Chiu has also expanded the museum’s board, and the Hirshhorn received, in October, the largest donation in its history in the form of a $2 million gift from Joleen and Mitch Julis. Still, Kriston Capps, writing in a recent profile of Chiu in the Washington City Paper, argued that even though D.C. doesn’t have the “mega-philanthropy” that New York does, there are still plenty of wealthy potential patrons, and “moving the museum’s biggest party out of town means missing out on the chance to cultivate those critical donors.” The Post reported recently that, Chiu’s fundraising success in her first year notwithstanding, she has spent a lot of her time in New York—“where the contemporary art world is focused,” as she told the paper, but also where her family lives. According to the Post, she took 58 one-way flights between New York and Washington in her first eleven months on the job.
Anyway, I would have loved to ask Chiu about all this at the gala last night, but when I approached her, she simply said to me, “You’re going to write something nice about us, right?” to which I was taken off guard and replied uncomfortably, “Uh, sure!” and then she passed me off to Marcus W. Brauchli, one of the museum’s trustees, before disappearing into the crowd.
“You shouldn’t have said that,” Brauchli, a former executive editor of the Post, said of my affirmative reply. Putting on his editor’s cap, the better response, he said, would have been, “We’ll see.” (Brauchli, for what it’s worth, was fine with the gala being in New York; his one complaint was that his hotel room had a view of a dank alley.)
As for that crowd, there was Abramovic, holding court with a much younger group of people on a couch. I saw Mark di Suvero, in his characteristic uniform of cargo pants and a blue fleece sweatshirt (the event was “cocktail attire”), signing one attendee’s autograph book(!). Theaster Gates acted as the evening’s dinner bell, weaving through the hoard of people by the bar, holding a microphone attached to a portable amplifier, and performing vocal gymnastics with the Black Monks of Mississippi, his five-piece experimental music ensemble. “Walk with me,” he sang, as the group harmonized behind him. (And trailing them was Thelma Golden, director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, where Gates has exhibited and performed; she was documenting the performance and had the smile of a proud parent.) Reaching the dining room, they broke out into the standard “Feeling Good,” made famous by Nina Simone. (“I cannot think of a more stirring stroll from cocktails to dinner,” David J. Skorton, the secretary of the Smithsonian, said in a speech later.)
Gates—who has a powerful bass voice—performed again during dinner, with the Black Monks of Mississippi now taking on the guise of an avant-garde jazz band, playing spurts of melody on an upright bass and vibraphones. Gates improvised about the 40 artist honorees. As Gates sang, di Suvero, seated at the table next to mine, was busy with something else, however. His tablemate had fashioned her dinner napkin into what appeared to be a rabbit hand puppet, and di Suvero was burying his face into it, laughing heartily. There were more speeches, from Chiu, from Skorton, from Peggy Burnet, the chair of the Hirshhorn’s board, but the audience was loud and restless throughout dinner. It was a tough crowd.