The Hirshhorn Is A Special Venue In Search Of Events

DAY AFTER UPDATE: Whoa, well, then. The Hirshhorn board split and Koshalek announced his resignation by year-end. What a way to go.
While designer Liz Diller made her politico-architectural case for The Hirshhorn Bubble in her 2012 TED talk, the Museum’s own justification for the project has been unclear and uncompelling.
Explanations center on making the Hirshhorn “an agent for cultural diplomacy.” In February director Richard Koshalek told Kriston Capps, “This institution should be the leader in terms of setting arts and cultural dialogue. Cultural policy is set in Washington, D.C.” This is debatable enough, as both mission and content.
The programming that’s always discussed, though, a “Center for Creative Dialogue,” involves conferences and discussions created by the Council on Foreign Relations and outside staff, not the Hirshhorn itself, or even the Smithsonian. Critics of the Bubble vision like Tyler Green note this disconnect, and that the Museum doesn’t need a bubble to host such policy-flavored forums and events; they could do it right now, in the existing auditorium. And in fact, they did just that last Fall, where a capacity crowd watched TV journalist Judy Woodruff moderate a panel on “Art and Social Change” during to the Ai Weiwei exhibition.
No, The Bubble is a thing apart, apparently, from the programming that would inhabit it. Its absurdist form on this symbolic site, and the transgressive gesture towards Gordon Bunshaft’s concrete donut, are meant to be self-justifying. Capps calls it “a public art stunt,” and the Washington Post suggests it could “break DC from stagnation.” It’s starchitecture as spectacle and a catalyst for attention and, eventually, one hopes, the holy grail of Washington existence: relevance.
Meanwhile, it’s amazing that until Capps’ reconsideration of the project last winter in the City Paper, there was no mention of what would be, for lack of a better term, the business model: The Bubble would be a for-hire event space.

Koshalek swears the Inflatable will engage the Hirshhorn’s curators, too. When the Bubble is inflated, part of its programming will correspond with whatever’s lining the gallery walls of the museum. The rest of the timeshare will go to whichever universities, think tanks, and corporations rent it out–a money-making proposition for the Hirshhorn which could lead to exclusive uses not quite in keeping with Diller’s civic scheme. (And certainly not with the museum’s artistic mission.)

“Four weeks, five weeks, maybe six weeks will be programmed by the Hirshhorn–having to do with exhibitions. How technology is driving culture. How we’re going to connect to the larger world. That’s the purpose,” he says. However, “universities could use the space, lease the space, just like universities lease an auditorium for inauguration.”

And now the focus on think tanks and universities starts to make sense. The Bubble is supposed to turn the Hirshhorn into an iconic venue which cultural, political, and academic institutions will rent for their own DC-based events.
This would dovetail, or subsume, an event space plan the Museum has already been implementing. It didn’t register at the time, but when I read Kriston’s piece, I remembered hearing from someone affiliated with the museum that moving the bookstore from the lobby to the basement would greatly improve the prospects for renting the lobby for evening events. [Remember that one of Koshalek’s earliest ideas was to justify using restricted funds for the bookstore move by commissioning and “acquiring” a permanent retail installation by Doug Aitken. Eventually the gig went to Barbara Kruger.]
So if The Bubble were actually a moneymaking investment for the Hirshhorn, why is it so hard to fund? Wouldn’t it be easy enough to convince the board to “invest” in this iconic, sustainable scheme? What’s a museum rent for these days, anyway? Or at least a 14,000-sf courtyard space, plus a 3,000sf glass lobby, on the Mall?
Looking at comps in the DC gala/event space market, I’d guess the Hirshhorn could ask for $12-15,000/gig, plus a few thousand more for direct expenses. If they could rent The Bubble for a maximum of 50% of the two months it’s installed each year: 30 days x $15k = $450,000/year. Maybe they could rent out the lobby on its own for, say, another 30 nights/year, less than one event/week. Say it’s $5,000-$7,500. That’s another $200k, for a total of $650,000/yr.
With a $12-15 million topline cost, plus set up and operations, The Bubble just does not make commercial sense, at least as a fundraiser, or even a self-supporting project.
But it turns out this scenario has already been analyzed by the Smithsonian, as part of an Inflatable Structure assessment begun in January, [timing which makes Kriston’s piece feel like a trial balloon [heh] for the event space concept.] In conclusions that went entirely unmentioned by the Post’s art/architecture critic Philip Kennicott, the paper reported that, the “Hirshhorn Bubble would be a money-loser” under all three scenarios analyzed, including “Special Events Venue.”
Renting out The Bubble for a dozen daytime and 20 evening events would lose $450,000/year, the report says, almost a million dollars less than the 3-day, TED-style conference originally envisioned, but still a lot of money. According to the Post,

installation and de-installation [would be] the biggest costs. Potential revenue in [a “Special Events Venue”] scenario was limited by a lack of restroom access and kitchen facilities, which could be added. But this vision was seen as having little connection to the missions of the Hirshhorn or the Smithsonian.

Well, yeah, since you put it that way.
And you know what, forget The Bubble. Liz Diller thinks Gordon Bunshaft’s building is “arrogant,” “corporate, and federal,” and wants to poke it right? Forget it. The Hirshhorn’s plaza and courtyard are one of the most striking public spaces in the District, one of the few unabashed expressions of postwar architecture around. It doesn’t need a Bubble to make it special.
Drop a geodesic dome on it, curtain the sides, bring in some nice restrooms and a catering tent, and the Hirshhorn would have a stunning event space that would actually make them money. Money that could go to support the programs of the museum. The precedent, of course, is the Smithsonian’s own National Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum, where Lord Foster’s courtyard hosts galas without disrupting or distracting from their institutional missions. And the National Building Museum, which hosts weddings and politically affiliated events that the Smithsonian’s guidelines keep out of their venues.
So yes, they’re not central to the museum’s mission, except in the fundraising sense, but there are good ideas within The Bubble concept. And the Hirshhorn can start pursuing them as soon as The Bubble is voted down tomorrow by the board of trustees.