The Future of the Arts and Industries Building? The Future Itself

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Helen DuBois, Gertraud Hechl of Bonhams and Rachel Goslins, director of the Arts and Industries Building. Photo by Robert Devaney.

At Georgetown Media Group’s Sept. 13 Cultural Leadership Breakfast at the George Town Club, Rachel Goslins, director of the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building, explained to attendees that the focus of the shuttered landmark’s future will be just that: the future.

The building’s new role, distinct from its neighbor museums, will be “to explore these big questions on our horizon … through the Smithsonian lens,” she said, meaning a generally optimistic view of human creativity and ingenuity.

Though “A.I.B.” is the second-oldest Smithsonian building on the Mall — it opened as the National Museum soon after it hosted James Garfield’s inaugural ball in 1881 — it has a history of displaying technological wonders, starting with marvels of engineering from the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. And in the middle of the 20th-century, Goslins noted, “it was the Air and Space Museum for 30 years.”

A Victorian brick pile by Adolf Cluss, also the architect of D.C.’s Franklin and Sumner Schools, the building was designed with 984 windows to provide natural light and ventilation. “By today’s standards, it would be a LEED-certified building,” Goslins joked.

A number of breakfast attendees remembered being inside, whether to see the airplanes and rocket ships then on view, visit a U.S. Bicentennial exhibition about the Centennial Exposition, take ballroom dancing classes or go on a hardhat tour.

After the building was closed in 2004, $55 million was spent over a dozen years on structural and façade renovations, to install a temporary HVAC system and to clear out the “gorgeous, soaring” halls. But funds were not available to build out the interior and a single compelling concept was lacking.

Enter Goslins — a former intellectual-property attorney, documentary filmmaker and executive director of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities — in August of 2016, hired as the building’s first actual director, the “only Smithsonian director of an empty building” and the only Smithsonian director who is a direct report to Secretary David Skorton.

During the current first phase of bringing the building back to life, it has hosted public events connected with the new guiding theme. A sold-out program last December, “The Long Conversation: Solving the Future,” was a relay of two-person dialogues among more than 25 leaders in the arts and the sciences. Here is a link to a short video of highlights from that event: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BhhwQ5AgaCU

Part of Halcyon’s We The People Festival was held at Arts and Industries last June. “The Long Conversation” will convene there again on Friday, Dec. 7.

The second phase, according to Goslins, is likely to be a large-scale temporary exhibition, and the third — following another closure, this time for interior construction — will be the building’s permanent reopening as “a dynamic exhibit hall” and “a space that helps people think about the future.”

An audience member referred to film director Alejandro Iñárritu’s immigration-themed virtual-reality installation “Carne y Arena (Flesh and Sand),” now in Northeast D.C., and Goslins said she expected the Arts and Industries displays to make use of VR and other new tools of engagement. The staffers who develop them “probably won’t be called curators,” but objects will also be part of the storytelling. “I still love objects,” she said.

She noted examples of such possible models as Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in London and LACMA’s planned satellites in Los Angeles, also mentioning museums of the future underway in Rio de Janeiro, Helsinki and Dubai.

In Goslins’s view, the current conversation about the future is dominated by two voices: dystopian and commercial. In contrast, the goal of the new Arts and Industries Building will be to engage people in an effort to make a better world, she said.

Helen DuBois, Gertraud Hechl of Bonhams and Rachel Goslins, director of the Arts and Industries Building. Photo by Robert Devaney.
The Georgetowner’s Ari Post and Sonya Bernhardt flank Rachel Goslins, director of the Arts and Industries Building. Photo by Robert Devaney.
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