Ask the Expert: Hirshhorn’s Melissa Chiu

The envelope-pushing museum director’s take on art, travel and her adopted hometown.

It’s hard to miss Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Gordon Bunshaft’s modernist doughnut-shaped design stands out from the Smithsonian’s other traditional buildings along the National Mall. In front of the Hirshhorn, another attention-grabbing sight: a smiling boulder crushing a 1992 Dodge Spirit, Jimmie Durham’s whimsical 11,000-pound sculpture.

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

Jimmie Durham sculpture

Credit for such head-turning acquisitions? Melissa Chiu, the museum’s executive director, who took the helm of the storied Smithsonian site in 2014. Since then, the Australian native has painted with a broad brush, bringing crowd-pleasing pieces like Durham’s but also Instagrammable immersive exhibitions by Icelandic performance artist Ragnar Kjartansson and Japanese pop artist Yayoi Kusama.

Chiu recently spoke with us about her job—arguably one of the coolest in D.C.— how she plans to top recent shows and what she loves about her adopted city.

Melissa Chiu

What’s the best part about your job?

It’s my great privilege to be able to communicate through exhibitions, to create programs that give voice to the most innovative and compelling artists from around the world.

The Hirshhorn recently showed works by Ragnar Kjartansson and Yayoi Kusama, which were huge hits. How are you going to top those exhibitions?

I encourage everyone not to miss our exhibitions by Ai Weiwei, Yoko Ono, Markus Lüpertz and Nicolas Party. They are very different artists, but each asks profound questions about our history and culture. After that, just wait and see!

Yayoi Kusama's "Obliteration Room"

Khartansson’s and Kusama’s works seem to show you have a playful spirit. How do you decide which artists to exhibit?

We’re always interested in artists who have something to say about the times in which we live. Sometimes this can have a playful approach—sometimes it has an entirely different sentiment.

Who’s your favorite artist, living or dead, and why?

I actually don’t have favorites. With each artist I encounter, I look for an individuality that pushes them to create with such conviction.

How would you describe D.C.’s art scene?

It’s very much an art scene defined by museums, especially national art museums—the National Gallery of Art—East and West buildings—the Smithsonian American Art Museum, National Portrait Gallery, and of course the Hirshhorn, the national museum of modern art. But it also has this fascinating creative pulse that’s reflected in artist projects throughout the city.

National Gallery of Art

As an Australian, what do you love about your adopted city, D.C.?

It’s a great place to live. The people are brilliant, and in the spring, there is no city more beautiful.

Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens

Can you recommend an off-the-beaten-path spot for great art in the city?

Transformer on P St. NW is an artist-run space, very much like where I started in Sydney. We collaborated with them to present a night of performance art on the Hirshhorn’s plaza, which was magical. Their gallery continues to surprise and delight.

Where are you going next, and what are you going to do there?

I’m going to Kassel, Germany, to see Documenta, a contemporary art exhibition that happens every five years and features experimental art.

If you could wake up anywhere tomorrow, where would you be?

Chiang Mai, Thailand