The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden was a gift to the nation from financier and avid collector of modern art, Joseph H. Hirshhorn (1899-1981). Hirshhorn began collecting in 1917 with the purchase of two Albrecht Dürer etchings, and art became his lifelong passion. Hirshhorn's collection is best known for its 19th and 20th century sculpture, including the works of Rodin, Picasso, Matisse, Giacometti, Calder, and Moore. He also collected the art of contemporary masters, becoming an avid collector of works by living painters such as Milton Avery, Stuart Davis, Arshile Gorky, Edward Hopper, Larry Rivers, and Raphael Soyer. He socialized with many artists and supported their careers through his purchases. Hirshhorn, for example, helped his friend Willem de Kooning finance the construction of a Long Island, New York studio in exchange for works of art. Hirshhorn also collected the works of American painters of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including Thomas Eakins, Louis Eilshemius, the Ashcan school artists, and first-wave modernists in touch with European developments.
Hirshhorn had long planned to keep his collection together in a museum so that the art could be accessible and give others the pleasure it had given him. The breadth of Hirshhorn's sculpture collection was unknown to the general public until 1962, when selected works were loaned to the Guggenheim Museum in New York for a major exhibition. Because of the strength of the collection, many museums throughout the United States and around the world courted Hirshhorn with offers of a museum and support for his holdings. Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley very much wanted to see a museum of contemporary art in Washington, DC, which had no significant modern art museums at the time. Ripley worked to persuade Hirshhorn that he should choose Washington and the Smithsonian from among many competitors for his art. In this effort he had the powerful assistance of President Lyndon B. Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird, who enthusiastically wooed Hirshhorn over several years.
Finally in 1966, Hirshhorn announced that he would give his entire collection to the Smithsonian, to be housed in a museum named for him and constructed on the National Mall by the federal government. The initial gift numbered more than six thousand pieces of art, and Hirshhorn bequeathed the Museum an additional six thousand items and an endowment of five million dollars at his death. On November 7, 1966, the US Congress passed legislation accepting the gift and giving the Smithsonian responsibility for the new museum.
The Hirshhorn, designed by architect Gordon Bunshaft, was the first modern building on the National Mall. The new museum was placed on the site of the Army Medical Museum, now the National Museum of Health and Medicine, which was demolished and its collections moved to the Walter Reed Medical Center campus. Bunshaft conceived the new museum as "a large piece of functional sculpture" among the classical structures of the National Mall. The hollow-centered, elevated cylinder—primarily a gallery for paintings—floats above nearly four acres of landscaped grounds for sculpture. Curved galleries expand the visitor's view of works. An entire wall of windows opens the interior and focuses on the fountain, with a serene recessed garden.
Similar to the round Guggenheim Museum in New York, the drum-shaped Hirshhorn is a stark contrast to the other classical and Victorian buildings nearby. The building is is 231 feet in diameter, 82 feet high, elevated 14 feet on four piers. The building and walls are surfaced with precast concrete aggregate of "Swenson" pink granite and the museum has some 197,000 square feet of total exhibition space, indoors and outdoors, with 60,000 square feet of exhibition space on three floors and 2.7 acres around and under the building. The Sculpture Garden is 1.3 acres and sunken six to fourteen feet below street level.
The groundbreaking for the new museum in January of 1969 was attended by President and Mrs. Johnson shortly before he left office. The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden opened to the public on October 4, 1974, under the direction of Abram Lerner, Hirshhorn's long-time art advisor and curator. Within six months, the museum welcomed over one million visitors. In 1981, the Sculpture Garden was redesigned and renovated by Lester Collins, a Washington-based landscape architect, to include graded ramps along the north border of the garden to give disabled visitors access to the major viewing level. A third ramp provided access to the lower level, and pathways were resurfaced in brick to make it wheelchair accessible. In the summer of 2009, the Museum moved outside of its traditional space with the exhibit Up 7th: look beyond our walls, an installation of high-resolution LED screens debuting a new work by graphic artist David Polonsky, at 7th and H Streets, NW, in the Chinatown neighborhood. Since its opening, the Hirshhorn collection has been refined and expanded and today it numbers more than twelve thousand objects.
- Chronology of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
- Bibliography of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
- Historic Images of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
- Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden Records from the Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Historic Picture Highlights of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
- Additional Records and Collections of the of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden Across the Smithsonian