The Hirshhorn Story


Late 1930s
The US Congress mandates a Smithsonian art museum for the National Mall; a design by Eliel Saarinen is unveiled in 1939. New York financier Joseph H. Hirshhorn (born Latvia, 1899) pursues a lifelong passion for collecting art.

World War II and shifting priorities shelve the museum project. On the National Mall in Washington, DC, the only venue for visual art is the National Gallery of Art, which focuses on old masters. In the late 1940s, Joseph Hirshhorn, now in his 40s and enjoying phenomenal success from uranium mining investments, begins recrafting his collection from "classic" French Impressionism to works by living artists, American modernism of the early 20th century, and sculpture.

In 1955, Joseph Hirshhorn sells his uranium interests for more than $50 million. His collection expands (late 1950s-early '60s) to warehouses, an apartment in New York, and an estate in Greenwich, Connecticut, with extensive acreage for sculpture.

A 1962 sculpture show at New York's Guggenheim Museum awakens an international art community to the breadth of Hirshhorn's holdings. Word of his collection of modern and contemporary paintings also circulates, and institutions in Italy, Israel, Canada, California, and New York vie for the collection. President Lyndon B. Johnson and Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley make a successful pitch for a new museum on Washington, DC's National Mall.

An Act of Congress establishes the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution (1966). The museum is primarily federally funded, although Hirshhorn later contributes $1 million toward building construction. Joseph and his fourth wife, Olga Zatorsky Hirshhorn, visit the White House. Groundbreaking takes place in 1969.

Early 1970s
Founding director Abram Lerner (born 1913) oversees research, conservation, and installation of over 6,000 objects, brought from the Hirshhorns' Connecticut estate and other properties to Washington, DC.

The museum building and garden complex, designed by Gordon Bunshaft (1909-1990) of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, nears completion on the National Mall. Ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan chairs the Hirshhorn's first Board of Trustees. The New York Times: "... a fortress of a building that works as a museum."

Joseph Hirshhorn speaks at the inauguration (1974), saying: "It is an honor to have given my art collection to the people of the United States as a small repayment for what this nation has done for me and others like me who arrived here as immigrants. What I accomplished in the United States I could not have accomplished anywhere else in the world." One million visitors see the 850-work inaugural show in the first six months.

The New York Times: "The Hirshhorn joins a select roster of institutions essential to the study of modern art."

Late 1970s
A major exhibition program is launched with "The Golden Door: Artist-Immigrants of America, 1876-1976," a Bicentennial project highlighting contributions by foreign-born artists, from the German photographer Arnold Genthe to the Bulgarian land-project artist Christo.

Other shows focus on Thomas Eakins's life and work, collector John Quinn's now-dispersed masterworks by Van Gogh and others, and the current pluralism in art, introduced in biennial group shows called "Directions."

Early 1980s
In 1981, Joseph H. Hirshhorn dies at 82, leaving a sizeable bequest. The New York Times: "He had always loved art.... He bought from feeling, not from calculation."

The 1.3-acre Sculpture Garden reopens (1981) after a renovation by Lester Collins. The Washington Post: "The greening of the Hirshhorn sculpture garden has transformed it into a jewel-like park within a park."

The tenth anniversary of the Hirshhorn (1984) occasions "Content: A Contemporary Focus, 1974-1984," one of the nation's first multi-artist exhibitions to suggest a connective theme of the so-called Post-Modern era. Artforum: "[The exhibition's] goal was to restructure our comprehension of the recent past, and it succeeded, at least temporarily, in giving it an unexpectedly unified look."

James T. Demetrion, 14-year director of the Des Moines Art Center in Iowa, succeeds Abram Lerner as the Hirshhorn's director. Art collector and retail store founder Sydney Lewis of Richmond, Virginia, succeeds Senator Daniel P. Moynihan as board chairman.

Late 1980s
"Directions" is recrafted as a series of one-gallery solo shows, highlighting emerging artists or new bodies of work by established artists. Joel Shapiro, Francesc Torres, Mel Chin, Ericka Beckman, Christian Marclay, and Cindy Sherman are among those featured.

The "WORKS" series (to 1993) is launched, featuring mixed-media, site-specific "interventions" to the Hirshhorn's architecture by Daniel Buren, Ann Hamilton/Kathryn Clark, Houston Conwill, Krzysztof Wodiczko, and many others.

Acquisitions exhibitions begin, charting the Hirshhorn's progress as a collecting institution. A regular program of de-accessioning prunes the collection of non-modern works, duplicate casts of sculptures, and redundancies.

"Russian and Soviet Paintings, 1900-1930: Selections from the State Treyakov Gallery, Moscow, and the State Russian Museum, Leningrad" presents works rarely seen in the West; the public responds with the highest daily attendance since the museum's first six months of operation.

Early 1990s
New York attorney and art collector Jerome Greene succeeds Sydney Lewis as board chairman (1991).

"Crosscurrents of Modernism-Four Latin American Pioneers: Diego Rivera, Joaquín Torres-García, Wifredo Lam, Matta" marks the Columbus Quincentennial.

Major exhibitions move from the lower level to the more commodious second-floor galleries, beginning with "Bruce Nauman," co-organized with the Walker Art Center. Art in America: "Nauman's art is positively oriented toward the inexpressible...He makes concrete what can only be dreamed of."

James Urban's sculpture plaza renovation wins a Federal Design Achievement Award (1995).

The "Collection in Context" exhibition series is launched to examine broad issues embodied by older works in the collection, often incorporating artifacts, books, letters, and other objects borrowed from Smithsonian sources. Highlighted are works by Thomas Eakins, Paul Gauguin, Raymond Duchamp-Villon, Henry Moore, and Horace Pippin, among others.

In 1996, the Hirshhorn commissions Nam June Paik to create a 70-monitor Video Flag to be the collection's first holding of video art, a regular feature of Hirshhorn exhibitions since 1981.

"Art Night on the Mall," a program of extended summer evening hours on Thursdays, is launched by the Hirshhorn and other international art museums of the Smithsonian.

Late 1990s
Washington, DC, philanthropist and collector Robert Lehrman succeeds Jerome Greene as board chairman.

On the occasion of its 25th anniversary in October 1999, the Hirshhorn hosts a fundraising gala and opens "Regarding Beauty: A View of the Late Twentieth Century," a multi-artist exhibition that travels to Munich. The New Yorker, responding to the issues raised by the exhibition: "We will have beauty galore in art if we can give it strong, cogent motives. That's the ultimate issue of the beauty debate in the art world."

Are Years What? (for Marianne Moore), a 40-foot-high red steel sculpture created by Mark di Suvero in 1967, is installed on the street-level plot of the Sculpture Garden, becoming a landmark on the National Mall.

Early 2000s
In 2000, the Hirshhorn receives congressional authorization to increase the maximum board membership from 10 to 25, expanding its range of expertise and geographic reach.

A touring exhibition of "Dali's Optical Illusions" attracts as many as 4,500 visitors a day to the museum, breaking attendance records. The Washington Post: "It isn't [Dali's] celebrity.... It's his restless, reaching mind, his vast imagination. Nothing... matters more in art."

A growing menu of free events and activities enlivens the "Art Night" programs on summer Thursday evenings, including talks by collected artists, screenings of independent films, conservation demonstrations, and outdoor concerts of jazz and Latin music.

Jim Demetrion retires as director after 17 years. "Salute to Jim Demetrion" (2001), the museum's second fundraising gala, attracts some 300 artists, art-world luminaries, and other admirers of the honoree. Demetrion is succeeded by Ned Rifkin.


Design Concept
Bunshaft conceived the Hirshhorn as "a large piece of functional sculpture" among the shrinelike structures of the National Mall. The hollow-centered, elevated cylinder-primarily a gallery for paintings-floats above nearly four acres of landscaped grounds for sculpture.

Curved galleries expand the visitor's view of works. Window-walls open the interior and focus on the fountain, while a recessed garden provides serenity. Like the round Guggenheim Museum in New York, the drum-shaped Hirshhorn is bold compared with its neighbors (Mall constructions tend to be brick Victorian fantasies, modernist block buildings, or neoclassical temples), but symmetry and frontality conserve the official Washington, DC, architectural mode.

The Hirshhorn is sited exactly halfway between the Washington Monument and the US Capitol, anchoring the southernmost end of the so-called L'Enfant axis (perpendicular to the Mall's green carpet). The National Archives/National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden across the Mall, and the National Portrait Gallery/Smithsonian American Art building several blocks to the north, also mark this pivotal axis, a key element of both the 1791 city plan by Pierre L'Enfant and the 1901 MacMillan Plan.

Technical Information

Architectural Timeline

1969. The Hirshhorn Museum groundbreaking takes place on the former site of the Army Medical Museum (built 1887) after that brick structure is demolished. A controversy soon develops over naming a building on the historic National Mall after a living person, as well as the new federal museum's modern look and intrusively expansive sculptural grounds.

1971. Amid this climate of controversy, Bunshaft's original conception for the Sculpture Garden-an elongated, sunken rectangle crossing the Mall with a large reflecting pool-is abandoned. He prepares a new design based on an idea outlined by art critic Benjamin Forgey in a Washington Star article. The new adaptation shifts the garden's Mall orientation from perpendicular to parallel and reduces its size from 2 acres to 1.3 acres. The design is deliberately stark, using gravel surfaces and minimal plantings to visually emphasize the works of art.

1974. The museum opens with three floors of painting galleries, a fountain plaza for sculpture, and the Sculpture Garden. In preparation for the opening, Hirshhorn curators and staff spend several months scrupulously planning the locations of artworks, both indoors and outdoors. Lightweight foam-core "dummy" sculptures are used to resolve the final placement of works in the garden. The originals, many of which had been airlifted from Hirshhorn's Connecticut estate onto flatbed trucks for transport, are put into place in the weeks before the opening.

1981. Closed since the summer of 1979, the Sculpture Garden reopens in September after a renovation and redesign by Lester Collins, a well-known landscape architect and founder of the Innesfree Foundation. The design introduces plantings, paved surfaces, accessibility ramps, and areas of lawn.

1985. The Museum Shop is moved to the lobby, increasing exhibition space at its former location on the lower level.

1993. Closed since December 1991, the Hirshhorn Plaza reopens after a renovation and redesign by landscape architect James Urban. The 2.7-acre area around and under the building is repaved in two tones of gray granite, and raised areas of grass and trees are added to the east and west.

Critics' Raves and Pans

"The whole complex has been designed as one composition... Bunshaft's design is not concerned with the grandeur of the Mall. It is concerned with the greater grandeur of his museum and it gives us an awful lot of beaux-arts pavement and pomposity that no longer seem to suit the taste and style of our times." [Preliminary design criticized] Wolf Von Eckhardt, The Washington Post, February 6, 1971.

"The circular plan is not only clear, but also provides a pleasant processional sequence that goes a long way.... The fortress quality of the Hirshhorn suggests some rather obvious thoughts about the nature of housing art in our time. But the building's architecture... is less the product of a desire to make a statement... than it is a logical progression in esthetic development.... " Paul Goldberger, The New York Times, October 2, 1974.

"[The building] is known around Washington as the bunker or gas tank, lacking only gun emplacements or an Exxon sign... It totally lacks the essential factors of esthetic strength and provocative vitality that make genuine 'brutalism' a positive and rewarding style. This is born-dead, neo-penitentiary modern. Its mass is not so much aggressive or overpowering as merely leaden." Ada Louise Huxtable, The New York Times, October 6, 1974.

"The parched severity of [the original Sculpture Garden] was not without merit, but the appeal was more to the mind than to the senses, more theoretical than practical.... The new design reinforces the identity of the garden as a welcoming urban park.... [This] park for art...serves the sculpture. The divisions of the space prove essential accents; artworks pop in and out of view as the spectator moves about the space...." Benjamin Forgey, The Washington Post, September 12, 1981.

"[The Hirshhorn is] the biggest piece of abstract art in town-a huge, hollowed cylinder raised on four massive piers, in absolute command of its walled compound on the Mall.... The circular a grand concoction...that for good reason has become the museum's visual trademark." Benjamin Forgey, The Washington Post, November 4, 1989.


Gordon Bunshaft (1909-1990), a Pritzker Prize-winning architect and longtime partner at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, was chosen by the Smithsonian Institution to design its new museum, established by an Act of Congress in 1966 after Joseph H. Hirshhorn donated his extensive modern art holdings to the American people.

The MIT-trained architect-an avid art collector-created well-reasoned, classical buildings that stressed function over fashion. His Lever House (1952), on New York's Park Avenue, remains a pivotal early example of glass-box scyscraper design, echoing the growing international influence of Mies van der Rohe's "less is more" sensibility.

Among Bunshaft's other major projects are the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York (1962), the Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale University (1963, incorporating a Noguchi environment), the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library in Austin, Texas (1971), and acclaimed skyscrapers such as One Chase Manhattan Plaza.


The Hirshhorn Museum's founding donor, Joseph H. Hirshhorn (1899-1981), immigrated to New York from Latvia when he was 4 years old. His widowed mother settled with her 13 children (Joseph was the twelfth) in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn.

In time, Hirshhorn would become a financier, philanthropist, and well-known collector of modern art whose gift to the Nation of 6,000 paintings, sculptures, drawings, and mixed-media pieces established his namesake museum on the National Mall. It has been open to the public since 1974.

At the age of 13, Joseph left school to become a newsboy. Two years later he took his first salaried job, on Wall Street in Manhattan, earning $12 per week. At 16, he launched his career as a financier by using his savings of $255 to become a stockbroker.

When he was 18, Hirshhorn acquired his first works of art: two etchings by the 16th-century German artist Albrecht Dürer, purchased for $75 each. This acquisition marked the beginning of a lifelong passion for collecting art, assisted by an innate talent for making money. In the late 1940s, Hirshhorn's mining investments in uranium-rich Canadian land cemented his status as a wealthy man.

Hirshhorn eventually turned his attention to the art of contemporary masters. He became an avid collector of works by living painters such as Arshile Gorky, Stuart Davis, Edward Hopper, Milton Avery, Raphael Soyer, and Larry Rivers. He socialized and visited with many of these artists and assisted them when he could-helping his friend Willem de Kooning, for example, finance the construction of a Long Island studio in exchange for works of art.

As a collector, Hirshhorn also went after works by American painters of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Thomas Eakins, Louis Eilshemius, Ashcan School artists, and first-wave modernists in touch with European developments are prime examples.

Hirshhorn was a frequent and welcome visitor in the studios of those whose works he collected, and many of these visits were commemorated in photographs. One such occasion was a 1966 visit to Pablo Picasso at Mas Notre Dame de Vie, near Mougins, in the south of France. Bearded photographer Edward Steichen was a guest of the Hirshhorns at their house : Villa Lou Miradou, in Cap d'Antibes.

Ultimately, Hirshhorn was perhaps best known as a collector of 19th- and 20th-century sculpture. He acquired major works by pioneers such as Auguste Rodin and Constantin Brancusi, as well as innovative contemporaries including Alexander Calder, Henry Moore, and Alberto Giacometti. Developing fast friendships, Hirshhorn showed his enthusiasm in numerous ways: by visiting Moore's studio, for instance, and enjoying the art scene with Giacometti.

The breadth of Hirshhorn's sculpture collection was unknown to the general public until 1962, when selected works were loaned to the Guggenheim Museum in New York for a major exhibition. Several international museums and governments courted Hirshhorn, but his comprehensive modern art holdings ultimately went to the Smithsonian Institution. Lady Bird Johnson, wife of then-President Lyndon B. Johnson, played a supporting role by paying personal visits to Joseph and his wife, Olga. After an Act of Congress established the Hirshhorn Museum in 1966, the Johnsons joined the Hirshhorns for the museum's groundbreaking in January 1969, just prior to the inauguration of President Richard M. Nixon.

Among the numerous honors afforded this self-made philanthropist during his lifetime was, appropriately, the Horatio Alger Award in 1976. The award is designed to honor determination, perseverance, and success in the face of adversity.

Dividing his time between Washington, DC, and Naples, Florida, Joseph Hirshhorn remained a vigorous art collector and patron until his death in 1981. His subsequent bequest to the museum nearly doubled the size of the collection. Building on this nucleus of Hirshhorn artworks, curators keep current on new art while refining the collection, which today numbers some 11,500 pieces. A constant stream of new acquisitions, including curators' purchases and gifts of art from many donors, extends the Hirshhorn legacy of passion for new art.


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Lerner, Abram, ed. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. New York: Henry N. Abrams, 1974. With essays by Linda Nochlin, Alfred Frankenstein, John I.H. Bauer, Milton W. Brown, Irving Sandler, and Dore Ashton.

Rosenberg, Harold. "The Hirshhorn." The New Yorker, vol. 50, no. 37 (November 4, 1974): pp. 156-61.

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