Women Leaders: Melissa Chiu, Director, Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden


Our spring arts preview featured 20 women cultural leaders in Washington, D.C. We wanted to amplify their voices in our online newsletters, spotlighting each of them individually. Our Thursday May 5 newsletter features Melissa Chiu, Director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

THE GEORGETOWNER: D.C. should have a “spring awakening” of sorts after two long years of Covid. What are you most looking forward to for your institution this season?  

MELISSA CHIU: This Hirshhorn Museum is busy. “One with Eternity: Yayoi Kusama in the Hirshhorn Collection” opens April 1, building on the legacy of our 2017 blockbuster that drew record attendance, with a showing of two infinity mirrored rooms by the artist. Another major project is our exhibition with Laurie Anderson, and many additional events this spring across the city, from film screenings to concerts. 

GEORGETOWNER: What led you to become a leader in your organization? Tell us a bit about your career trajectory and inspirations along the way.

MC: I’m originally from Australia where I earned my Ph.D. in contemporary Chinese art. I moved to New York and worked as a curator. In 2004, I was appointed director of the Asia Society Museum where I launched their contemporary art collection in dialogue with their Rockefeller Collection of Asian art. I joined the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in 2014. As Director, I am focused on expanding the lens of modern and contemporary art and public access to it. 

GEORGETOWNER: What are the biggest challenges for your organization?

MC: Space! Joseph Hirshhorn’s foundational gift established the permanent collection of the national museum of modern art. Since 1974, the Hirshhorn’s collection has grown through acquisitions and transformational gift,s including one promised by Washingtonians Barbara and Aaron Levine. Our brutalist campus design is iconic but it has challenges. Late last year, the Hirshhorn’s proposal for artist-architect Hiroshi Sugimoto to revitalize our Sculpture Garden was approved. We’ll break ground this fall. When we complete this design, it’ll be our 50th anniversary season, and our outdoor galleries by the National Mall will be more flexible for the latest in contemporary art and ready to welcome 35 million visitors every year. 

GEORGETOWNER: How do you feel being among the first women to lead an arts institution? 

MC: Representation is as important in the boardroom as it is in our galleries. 

GEORGETOWNER: What are you most proud of accomplishing while serving in your position?

MC: Technology is an important component of our visitor experience. In 2018, we launched Hirshhorn Eye, a revolutionary in-gallery guide that opens video messages from artists using the image recognition on your smart phone. During the pandemic, the Hirshhorn was closed for 524 days. Through inventive programming and the participation of living artists including Marina Abramović, Arthur Jafa, Ragnar Kjartansson, and Yoko Ono, the Hirshhorn drew a million virtual visitors. We’ve reopened as a hybrid museum with a local, national, and global audience. As far as what I’m most proud of? This is contemporary art, so stay tuned. 




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