Smithsonian Institution Archives

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden - Agency History

The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden was a gift to the nation from the financier and avid collector of modern art, Joseph H. Hirshhorn. Hirshhorn began his collecting with prints in 1917, and it became his lifelong passion. Hirshhorn's collection is best known for its nineteenth and twentieth century sculpture, including the works of Rodin, Picasso, Matisse, Giacometti, Calder, and Moore. He also collected widely and enthusiastically from the works of contemporary American painters, including, among many others, Thomas Eakins, Willem de Kooning, Raphael Soyer, and Larry Rivers.

Hirshhorn had long planned to keep his collection together in a museum so that its art could be accessible and give others the pleasure it had given him. 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, which had no significant contemporary museum 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 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 Mall by the federal government. The initial gift numbered more than 6,000 pieces of art, and Hirshhorn bequeathed the Museum an additional 6,000 items and an endowment of five million dollars at his death.

The Hirshhorn Museum opened to the public in October 1974 under the direction of Abram Lerner, who had been appointed in 1967 after curating Hirshhorn's personal collection in New York and advising him on art purchases since 1955. Lerner retired in October 1984 and was succeeded by James T. Demetrion, formerly director of the Des Moines Art Center.

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Revised: August 29, 2002