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The Hirshorn

The Hirshhorn Museum

Groundbreaking for the Museum was in January, 1969, Latvian immigrant Joseph Hirshhorn donated his extensive modern art and sculpture collection, along with the funds to build the museum. Hirshhorn stated that he wanted to repay the United States for what it had done for him, affording opportunities that he would not have been afforded anywhere else in the world.

The Hirshhorn Museum

If you’re planning an illuminated tour of DC, no matter the season, by foot or by car, you’ll soon happen upon the Hirshhorn Museum on the National Mall at 7th and Independence Ave, SW. This truly enormous, white circular building, designed by Gordon Bunshaft for the Smithsonian Institution, opened in 1974 to house one of the world’s single largest contemporary art collections. This iconic, glowing building has been a superstar in the many see-DC-at-night-Mall-tours ever since.

The Hirschhorn Museum was sited more or less across the Mall from the National Gallery of Art which opened in 1941. The National Gallery of Art began when financier Andrew Mellon donated his large collection of European Old Masters and British Portraits to the Smithsonian Institution. Like the Mellon bequest, this vast collection of contemporary art was also given to the Smithsonian by one man, Joseph Hirshhorn.

Hirshhorn arrived in the United States from Latvia when he was 8 years old and by the age of 14 was working as an office boy on Wall Street. By the age of 17, he became a trader on the New York Stock Exchange. He was a shrewd investor and sold his portfolio before the crash in 1929. By the early 1930’s Hirshhorn was investing in minerals and oil and went on to develop Canadian Uranium mines, where he made his fortune. He bought his first pieces of art at the age of 18.

Hirshhorn was a compulsive art collector often buying many works at the same time from the same artist for his ever-expanding private collection. He favored living American artists – basically his contemporaries. He was known in the art community for his generosity and his purchases enabled many artists to survive. He identified with starving artists. Growing up his family lived in a cramped railroad flat and he often went hungry. When Hirshhorn was one year old his father died, and his mother and her two oldest daughters immigrated to the United States. They worked in Brooklyn sweatshops to pay for the rest of the children to come to America.

Until the 1960’s the size of Joseph Hirshhorn’s art and sculpture collection was unknown. After the National Gallery of Art was under construction The Smithsonian Institution was authorized by Congress to build a contemporary art museum but World War II intervened. The Secretary of the Smithsonian only became aware of the depth of Hirshhorn’s collection when in 1962 the Guggenheim opened a wildly popular exhibit of his contemporary art trove. Immediately foreign countries began to court Hirshhorn to convince him to find an offshore home for his collection. But Hirshhorn was American. He put it this way “…what I did in America, in the United States, I couldn’t do anywhere else in the world, not even England. I come from nowhere with very little education. Here you can go anywhere. If you do the right things you can become president. I’m giving back some of the fruits that I earned in the United States and that I’ve enjoyed – to the people of the world.”

In the end, it only took lunch with Lady Bird Johnson in 1966 to convince Joseph Hirshhorn to give his collection to the Smithsonian Institution. The Smithsonian already had the funds to build a contemporary museum. They only needed the art to complete their mission. To begin with, Hirshhorn gave over 6000+ pieces of art and sculpture to the Smithsonian as well as a $2,000,000 endowment. Eventually, he bequeathed another 6000 pieces as well as an additional $4,000,000 for the endowment.

Today the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden is a world-renowned source of contemporary art activity and inspiration with displays changing often. Admission to every Smithsonian museum including the Hirshhorn Museum is free of charge.

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