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The Hirshhorn Bubble Exposes the Problem with Event Art

When the Museum of Modern Art’s PS1 outpost in Queens launched “Wendy” on July 1, it was hard to say exactly what it was supposed to be. For visiting tots, Wendy was plainly a kick-ass fountain: The spiky, blue, house-sized echinoderm sprayed jets of cool water from its arms at random intervals all summer long. According to HWKN, the New York–based architectural firm that designed Wendy, its purpose was to eat smog: its nanoparticle-treated nylon-fabric body absorbed the equivalent of the exhaust of 260 cars over the course of its display.

But for MoMA PS1, the point may have just been to bring the crowds. And so it did. Wendy served as a backdrop for the museum’s outdoor “Warm Up” summer dance concert series. Neither Wendy nor Warm Up were, in a strict sense, in keeping with a modern art museum’s mandate—yet both illustrate a widespread trend in museum programming: spectacle over exhibition. Consider Cai Guo-Qiang’s 2008 exhibit for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, a display of nine Chevrolet Metros—several suspended in mid-air—or the 2010 Tino Sehgal show, which featured no artwork at all but a set of hired performers. Ai Weiwei’s 100 million hand-crafted ceramic sunflower seeds in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern is another example; people flocked to The New Museum for Carsten Höller’s slide, built to slice through the boxy Bowery building.

In late 2009, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden announced plans to inflate a gigantic balloon through the center of its Gordon Bunshaft–designed museum. The Bubble, as it immediately came to be known, was to be a seasonally inflated, temporary structure, designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro. The vast blue polyp would liven up the Mall, but more significantly, it would be an architectural event that seems to take on the architectural scale of the institution that was to host it. But the Bubble represents a new—and misguided—attempt to get into the spectacle game.

First, there is the cost. The original price-tag of $5 million, a hopelessly optimistic figure from the start, has ballooned to $15.5 million. Hardly a problem for a federally funded institution, right? That’s a common misperception. Government funding pays salaries for personnel, but much of the funding for everything else is provided by donors and sponsors. While the Washington metropolitan area is affluent, few of its industries boast the kind of individual wealth that Hollywood and Wall Street generate. That means that to fund its big ideas, a museum like the Hirshhorn must look beyond its mostly local board to the Philip Morrises and Target Corporations of the philanthropic world.

There is reason to believe that this has not been easy. To fund the Bubble, the museum originally turned to Bloomberg, planning to call it the Bloomberg Balloon in honor of a $1 million (or greater) gift. But, perhaps tellingly, the Hirshhorn has not consistently referred to the Bloomberg Balloon as such, suggesting there may still be room—or the need—for a larger donor. Diminishing federal support certainly won’t fund the Bubble, and to date, the museum's board has not stepped up to bridge the funding gap. One hopes that the museum will not have to turn to Kickstarter, or—as it did in order to raise money for the recent Ai Weiwei exhibit. (Fourteen people donated a total of $555 toward the museum’s $35,000 goal.)

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Of course, the price tag would be less relevant if the project was a worthy one. But the Bubble seems like little more than an inflated take on the event-as-art endeavor with a pronounced D.C. flavor. The Bubble would not be an art space so much as a dressed-up lecture series. The tentative lineup for the Bubble, announced back in 2010 and reconfirmed last year, involved collaborations with think-tanks and policy organizations: a session on international diplomacy with the Council on Foreign Relations, a tech roundup with the MacArthur Foundation, and a look at art and destruction with Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study. Director Richard Koshalek’s plan was to put the Hirshhorn pavilion in a class with the Aspen Ideas Festival or TED Talks.

Washington, of course, already has its share of democratic forums and think-tank lecture halls. But what Washington doesn’t have in spades is contemporary art museums. Arguably, it only has the Hirshhorn. The Corcoran Gallery of Art excels in photography, but the institution aims to be an encyclopedic museum of American and European art (despite its recent troubles). The far-reaching Smithsonian American Art Museum does not try to compete with the Hirshhorn in modern or contemporary work, and the National Gallery of Art’s East Wing seems to have ceded the territory. The National Gallery’s “In the Tower” series on contemporary art, for instance, changes infrequently. The Phillips Collection does not have the space or funding to host large, contemporary art exhibits.

The Bubble would further limit the space devoted to contemporary art in Washington. The interior of the cylindrical donut would be a no-man’s land for the purposes of showing art, for the most part, and it could preclude the use of the museum patio, which was has been used so effectively to display the stellar series of Zodiac heads by Ai Weiwei. Of course, some artist could eventually devise an art use for the Bubble, but that appears to be neither a plan nor a promise associated with the pavilion—and it is hard to conceive such a project that couldn’t happen on the patio as is. While the neat-o factor for the Bubble is substantial, it is neither cost nor mission efficient.

The Hirshhorn does not need to shy away from spectacle-size artistic endeavors entirely. They can drum up enthusiasm like nothing else, as the success of Doug Aitken’s “SONG1,” a video installation projected onto the concrete exterior of the cylindrical museum last spring and summer, showed. But it doesn’t sound like art has anything to do with the Bubble—except insofar as it's in keeping with recent art-world trends. That bubble in the contemporary-art world is one that’s bound to burst—and one that the Hirshhorn would do best to avoid.

Kriston Capps is senior editor for Architect magazine. He lives in Washington, D.C.