Melissa Chiu: Washington is a political capital, but in many ways also a cultural capital

Photo by Tim Coburn

Photo by Tim Coburn

A prominent piece of Washington DC’s identity puzzle lies within its offering of exceptional art; a trip to the US capital is rarely complete without passing through the doors of at least one of the 19 Smithsonian Institute museums. These extraordinary entities make up the world’s largest museum, education, and research complex, and they are shaping the future by preserving heritage, exposing new knowledge, and sharing resources with the world.

One of these 19 is the Hirshhorn – a modern contemporary art museum that provides a national platform for the art and artists of our time. Its mission, to share the transformative power of modern art by creating meaningful experiences in which art, artists, audiences and ideas converge, has made it one of the most visited museums in the US.

At the helm of the Hirshhorn sits Australia-native Melissa Chiu, the first non-American to hold the prestigious position. Melissa brings with her a PhD in Chinese contemporary art, decades of trans-continental experience in the art world and an internationalism she describes as a “contributing reason” to her appointment.

For such an extraordinary role – to oversee the direction and program of the museum – there’s no such thing as an ordinary day for Melissa. Each day brings something different, whether that be an upcoming exhibition, looking at an existing collection in a different way, or curating a special initiative.

Speaking to Advance, Melissa shared her insights as to why institutions such as the Smithsonian are more important than ever, how she measures success and why she could never pick a favourite exhibition.

Interview by Molly O'Brien

How does the Hirshhorn differentiate itself from the other Smithsonian museums?

The Hirshhorn is the only museum devoted to modern-contemporary art within the Smithsonian. So, in that, we regularly work with living artists and are forever collaborating with them to create new work. It’s different because there's another piece to the puzzle, which is that you want to be representing the artist’s vision and intention within the exhibition.

What was the experience like being elected as the first non-American to head the museum? Did you feel any pressure or any need to prove yourself in this role?

I had been in New York about 14 years prior to coming to Washington so had a fairly strong grasp on the art scene, but definitely felt a level of responsibility having the mantel at the national museum of modern art; there is a really robust art world here that has become so much more global than ever before.

What did you bring to the Hirshhorn that other directors before you hadn’t?

While the Hirshhorn has always been international in its mission, I think the idea of what it really means to be international has expanded exponentially, and I think I’ve contributed to the museum having a bigger international mandate. Fifty years ago, internationalism may have meant Europe and a little bit of Latin America, but today it's everything under the sun. And coming from an international background, I bring first-hand experience of what that really means.

Was the Hirshhorn a museum that you had set your sights on prior to working there?

The Hirshhorn has an extraordinary reputation in the art world as really one of the earliest contemporary art museums with a really extraordinary collection, and so it was always known to me. I never thought I would be here but the role came up and was impossible to say no.

How do you measure success?

I think the increasing visitor numbers is one measurement of success at the Hirshhorn. It’s also the lasting effect and impact of the exhibitions we have on. I'm very pleased of the effect that Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama had on our attendance numbers, and other exhibitions like Robert Irwin, which was voted by two New York Times critics as the best show of the year. I think that's a huge accolade in terms of us shedding new light on a really important figure in today's art world and a younger generation of artists. I think we've done a lot in the last three years of my tenure to signal some of the changes that artists are grappling with.

Why are institutions such as the Smithsonian more important than ever?

Contrary to popular belief that technology is the key to success in this economy, I believe that it’s the ability to be creative that is the enabler to thrive. And I think that it's museums that allow people to think creatively about the world that we live in, particularly modern and contemporary art museums at a time where ‘disruption’ is the key word. It's the artists who are disrupting that are setting a change for the future, that you can often only see very clearly from hindsight.

Do you think that's what modern museum visitors are going to see? A change for the future?

I'm not sure. I think museums today are much more civically-minded and engaged in building new audiences and so I think each museum has its own thinking that is true to its mission. For us, it's about artists, what they're thinking about and how to provide a platform for them. I think for our peer institutions, whether it be the American History, Natural History or the Portrait Gallery, they all have their own mission and mandate, and depends on them in terms of how they enforce it.  

How do you decide what exhibitions are on display?

When I transitioned from being a museum curator to a director, I saw my role as looking at the over-arching program – which shows to exhibit and when – to create a story that the museum can tell. For example, for the last year we've been focused on artists who are engaged with a sense of politics, whether it was Markus Lüpertz from Germany, Ai Weiwei from China or Yayoi Kusama from Japan. All of them had their own sense of politics that was rendered in very different ways – some only within their work – and others much broader through social media and even political commentary.

Ai Weiwei Exhibit - Photo by Cathy Carver

Ai Weiwei Exhibit - Photo by Cathy Carver

I would say that seeing the exhibition program at the Hirshhorn in its entirety – we’ve done a lot of work towards looking at the 20th century with fresh eyes – really looking at artists who were important, especially in the 60s and 70s – and whose work remains important.

We currently have an exhibition called Brand New that has a focus on 1980s artists who were looking at consumerism and the art market. This changed idea of what it was to create art, that perhaps even inspired modern advertising. On the flip side of that, we have a project with Tony Lewis, an up-and-coming African American artist from Chicago who works with comic books, turning them into poetry.

I think that we're always looking on both sides of the spectrum: what we can we tell about the 20th century with new eyes given we're now in the 21st century, and how can we show the work of artists who will be important in the future.

Has the perception of museums changed in the 21st century?

I think something has definitely changed in the perception of museums, particularly among millennials, that they don’t see museums devoted to contemporary art, as for the few. They see it as a place where they can see new ideas, see new materials and that's at the forefront of thinking.

Do you think that your Australian upbringing and education influenced your artistic tastes?

I was fortunate to have had a number of opportunities in Australia at a fairly early stage of my career and I really benefited from that. I found an interest in what was going on in the Asia-Pacific region in the early 1990s which prompted my PhD in Chinese contemporary art.

I think that from my vantage point I was able to program certain exhibitions early on in my tenure, working with artists who I had strong connections to, if not having worked with them before.

What has been your favourite exhibition in the Hirshhorn since you've been here?

I have no favourites. It's like having children, you're not allowed to choose!

Do you think that Washington is underrated in terms of its artistic offerings? How did you find the move from New York to DC professionally?

I think there's no doubt that Washington is a political capital, but in many ways is a cultural capital also. There are very few other cities that have the number of national museums that we have here in DC, so with that comes a responsibility to representing what's going on in our respective fields.

Both New York and DC are very different. I think that for me, it was about finding out what works in Washington; there’s a need to balance both national and international visitor expectations, and to also cater for the local audience. To combat this, we’ve increased the number of lectures, films, and performance art work, so that local audiences can enjoy themselves while also looking carefully at the kinds of exhibitions and partnerships that we forge to ensure we have a national and international reach.