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Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Congratulations Hirshhorn!

Unique in style and substance on the Mall, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden’s opening night, October 4, 1974, was a glamorous affair that showed off the circular building, the sculpture garden grounds, and the collections they housed at their best. This was the first modern art collection on the National Mall, and the museum's design reflected its collection.

On opening night of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, October 4, 1974, a crowd has gathered in the interior court. Smithsonian Institution Archives. Neg. #92-1647. 
Those collections numbered over six thousand items on opening day, their transfer from Joe and Olga Hirshhorn completed just a month before the museum opened.  The couple was avid collectors of modern art, and wanted to see their collection kept together in a museum so that others could enjoy the art as much as they had.  With the help of Lady Bird and Lyndon B. Johnson, Secretary S. Dillion Ripley convinced them to donate their collection to the Smithsonian.

Arriving on the Mall from the Hirshhorn home in Greenwich, Connecticut, Henry Moore's "King and Queen" is gently lowered into place on its pedestal in the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Smithsonian Institution Archives. Neg. #SIA2011-2398.
As a uniquely modern building on the National Mall, the circular building features curved galleries that float above the grounds that hold the Hirshhorn’s large sculpture collection. On opening night, both the garden and the museum glittered with bright lights. In his opening night remarks Secretary Ripley set the museum a lofty goal saying, “the purpose of the Hirshhorn is to remind us all that life is more than the usual, that the human mind is capable of seeing life subjectively, and being stirred into new and positive ways of thought…. Let its assemblage of shapes and objects continue to stir our slothful minds and jog our minds our sensibilities as they are designed to do.” William Schuman composed a special piece of music for the occasion, “Prelude for a Great Occasion” played by the National Symphony Orchestra during opening ceremonies.

Secretary S. Dillon Ripley (1964-1984) greets Mr. Joseph H. Hirshhorn, founding donor, on opening day of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, October 4, 1974. Smithsonian Institution Archives. Neg. #SIA74-9851-04.
The Hirshhorn opened to high hopes and lots of enthusiasm.  In its first six months over one million visitors saw the opening exhibit of items from the permanent collection.  The Washington Post claimed that the collection “will enable to the Hirshhorn, better perhaps than any other museum, to present a comprehensive account of the development of modern art from the mid-19th century to the present.” And the Washington Star-News exclaimed “Well, we’ve seen it now. And we’re in love with it. It’s exciting, it’s full of old friends and many new ones that we hadn’t had the pleasure of meeting before, and it’s, above all, great fun.”

Above all, I think that would have most pleased Mr. Hirshhorn and Secretary Ripley that this gift of art was bringing as much joy to its visitors as it brought to them.  This sense of joy and celebration ran throughout its opening days as Mr. Hirshhorn surprised the Museum with ‘birthday’ gift of four additional sculptures for the inaugural exhibition.

Lisa Fthenakis, Program Assistant

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