Hirshhorn Museum Opening 1974


The US Congress mandates a Smithsonian art museum for the National Mall in Washington, DC; a design by Eliel and Eero Saarinen is unveiled. World War II and shifting priorities shelve the museum project. On the National Mall, the only venue for visual art is the National Gallery of Art, opened in 1941, which focuses on old masters.


Joseph Hirshhorn’s collection awakens an international art community. A sculpture show at New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum galvanizes interest in the breadth of Hirshhorn’s holdings. Word of his collection of modern and contemporary paintings also circulates, and interested parties from Beverly Hills, California; Zurich, Switzerland; Israel; England; Baltimore, Maryland; Italy; and Governor Rockefeller, on behalf of the state of New York, vie for the collection. President Lyndon B. Johnson and Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley make a successful pitch for a new museum in Washington, DC.


An Act of Congress establishes the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution.


Groundbreaking for the building takes place. The Museum is primarily federally funded, although Mr. Hirshhorn contributes toward building construction.


The Founding Director Abram Lerner (1913–2007) oversees research, conservation, and installation of nearly 6,000 objects, many brought from the Hirshhorn Connecticut estate and other properties to Washington, DC. Funding from Mr. Hirshhorn is set aside as an endowment for art acquisitions.


The Museum opens with three floors of painting galleries, a fountain plaza for sculpture, and the Sculpture Garden. One million visitors see the 850-work inaugural show in the first six months.

The New York Times, 1974: “The Hirshhorn joins a select roster of institutions essential to the study of modern art.”


Joseph Hirshhorn dies, and in the following years, the museum receives an additional bequest of 6,400 works from the Hirshhorn estate, doubling the original holdings of the Museum.


James T. Demetrion is selected as the Hirshhorn’s second director. Demetrion’s seventeen-year tenure, from 1984 to 2001, is marked by outstanding acquisitions of artworks, expanding the focus of the collection and filling major gaps in the original Hirshhorn bequest. Demetrion increases the number of exhibitions organized by the Hirshhorn and circulated to other museums.


The Plaza is renovated and repaved, creating greener, more welcoming environments for the display of large outdoor sculptures.


Under the tenures of directors Ned Rifkin (2002–2005), Olga Viso (2005–2007), and Richard Koshalek (2009–2013), with interim stewardship by Deputy Director and Chief Curator Kerry Brougher, the Hirshhorn makes particular advances in developing and staging large, full-floor exhibitions. Taking advantage of the Museum’s iconic architecture to create truly immersive and unique environments, particularly successful exhibitions include Hiroshi Sugimoto; The Cinema Effect: Illusion, Reality, and the Moving Image; Yves Klein: With the Void, Full Powers; and Ai Weiwei: According to What?


The Hirshhorn acquires 39 major works from the collection of Giuseppe and Giovanna Panza di Biumo, greatly enhancing the Museum’s holdings, and highlighting its commitent to, postwar Conceptual Art.


The ARTLAB+ digital education studio is established with generous support from the MacArthur and Pearson Foundations. In the years since its founding, ARTLAB+ has received international recognition and ongoing attention from the White House and the Department of Education for its innovative programs that transform the lives of local Washington, DC teenagers.


The Hirshhorn acquires and displays Doug Aitken’s SONG 1, the first 360-degree exterior projection across the entire façade of the Museum. Nightly performances draw tens of thousands of visitors to the Mall to participate in the experience. The Museum shop is moved to the Lower Level (newly transformed with a graphic intervention by Barbara Kruger), restoring the lobby to an open space for installations and events.


The Hirshhorn works with architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro to research and design an ambitious Seasonal Inflatable Structure over the building’s cylindrical courtyard. The project ultimately proves financially unsustainable in the economic climate of the time.


The Hirshhorn celebrates its 40th anniversary with the opening of two major exhibitions and a renovation of the Third Level collection galleries, which are restored to their original architectural layout. Melissa Chiu is hired as the Museum’s sixth director.