The National Mall in Washington has seen all sorts of enterprises over the years, but who would build a translucent, inflatable bubble there, protruding from the doughnut-shaped Hirshhorn Museum and looking, from renderings, like a giant jellybean colored robin's egg blue? And why?
That would be Richard Koshalek, the Hirshhorn's voluble director, who when announcing the 145-foot-tall bubble last December uncharacteristically said little about its purpose other than that it would host four week-long international events, every spring and fall, about contemporary art and culture.
Over breakfast here in New York last week, he began for the first time to fill in important details. Invoking the need for society to take its cues from "the creative individual," he spoke of plans to convene forums in the bubble—which is being designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro—that will insert art into the dialogue of national and world affairs. For the inaugural week in October 2012, the focus will be on "new applications of cultural dialogue and diplomacy," organized in a partnership with the Council on Foreign Relations. Later that month, "Open Sources" will explore how technology is driving culture. The following May will feature a week on "art and destruction," with the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Luminaries in the visual arts and other disciplines who will help organize the meetings include conductor Daniel Barenboim, movie director Kathryn Bigelow, and Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (because, Mr. Koshalek says, he has spoken out against culturally isolating nations like North Korea).
Ken Fallin/Courtesy of The Wall Street Journal
Mr. Koshalek needs $15 million—including a $5 million endowment—to hatch his grand idea, which in its bare-bones description last winter met skepticism. But the project may soon gain credence: Bloomberg LP will provide more than $1 million over two years as a naming gift, though it will not be official until the Regents of the Smithsonian Institution, of which the Hirshhorn is part, approve it at their meeting this fall. (The inflatable pavilion's actual name is also problematic: "Bloomberg Bubble" is probably not going to work, given the connotation of "bubble" in the financial world.)
Mr. Koshalek has also raised $1.5 million from the Pearson Foundation, Nokia, the MacArthur Foundation and a few individuals for the lobby classroom, which will function year-round. He's hoping the disclosure of these funders will help him attract the rest.
But what has all this got to do with visual art?
It will all take place in parallel with exhibitions, conservation and research at the Hirshhorn, but Mr. Koshalek's main line of defense centers on every museum's educational mission. "This is not entertainment," he says. "This is not a conference. It is an educational exchange." He believes that museums today "have to curate the public spaces and educational programs as well as exhibitions."
It also has a lot to do with his ambitions as director. With its free admission and location on the heavily trafficked Mall, the Hirshhorn easily draws visitors to its exhibitions and its collection of about 12,000 works of modern art, mostly given by its benefactor, financier Joseph H. Hirshhorn. But while the collection has strengths—depth in work by artists like Willem de Kooning—it also has mediocrities: "a work in progress" is Mr. Koshalek's preferred description. He plans to address the weaknesses by acquiring contemporary works avidly, especially in film, video and new media—an effort that will take time.
The Hirshhorn's profile has rarely been high in the art world, though, and Mr. Koshalek is impatient. When he was named to his job in February 2009, at age 67, he set out to enhance the Hirshhorn's low profile in the art world. His previous jobs as director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and later as president of the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., gave him lofty platforms, allowing him to forge friendships with people like Frank Gehry and Nobel laureate David Baltimore—a perk he clearly enjoys.
Mr. Koshalek's plans for the bubble, which combine splashy architecture with elements of both the exclusive and influential World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conferences around the world, achieve both professional and personal goals.
"I took the job because of this," he says. "If we can develop an educational program that's national and global in outlook, we can have an impact on cultural policy in the U.S."
The bubble and its events will also, he says, inspire new "art-based programming and publications, both at the Hirshshorn and with our collaborating institutions." Many of the events in the bubble will inform exhibitions at the museum, which may precede, be concurrent with or follow the forums. There will, for example, be an exhibition called "Art and Destruction" beginning in 2012, opening before that forum and continuing past it.
There will be plenty of potential subjects, because each forum will discuss 20 to 30 projects illustrating its theme. Already, there are plans for the event on cultural diplomacy to explore the impact of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, conceived in 1999 by Mr. Barenboim and the late Edward Said, which brings together young musicians from the Middle East to play and reflect on the Palestinian-Israeli problem. The World Digital Library, through which the Library of Congress, the Library of Alexandria, in Egypt, and dozens of other libraries world-wide are making primary source materials available free on the Internet in multilingual format, is another agenda item.
Mr. Koshalek believes that building this cross-border cultural awareness could lead to new ideas, new relationships, new understandings. "This is real-world research," he explains.
The Hirshhorn's location in the nation's capital is critical to Mr. Koshalek's concept. "I would not do this in Los Angeles or Chicago," he says. But Washington is not only the "capital of democracy," home to the Education Department and other federal agencies that deal with the issues the Hirshhorn will explore, but also where there are "more than 500 think tanks doing deep research on issues" and there is a "deep foreign presence" in embassies and international agencies.
The bubble project also fits easily within the four areas Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough has outlined as his organizational principles: exploring the universe, climate change, world cultures and the American experience.
Mr. Koshalek hopes that his vision will go beyond Washington, inspiring other museums that are struggling to draw and educate people beyond their current audiences. "Museum education has been very predictable," he says. This, though, is life-long learning that links different constituencies with the arts in a new way. It's "a bold leap forward," he says.