Hirshhorn of Plenty

Kriston Capps at a gala for “Shirin Neshat: Facing History” at the Hirshhorn Museum

Left: Hirshhorn Museum director Melissa Chiu and Robert Bahadori. Right: Artist Shirin Neshat (middle). (All photos: Liz Gorman)

CURTAINS OF RAIN greeted dolled-up attendees for Saturday night’s gala at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Valets with oversize umbrellas led tuxedos and gowns from their black cars on Independence Avenue to the soggy red carpet at the museum’s entrance. It was all for naught: There was no staying dry, but it hardly mattered.

Dark skies lifted, eventually, making for an auspicious evening for...what, exactly? The event was intended as a fete for Shirin Neshat, the Iranian artist whose video and photography graces “Shirin Neshat: Facing History,” a midcareer survey that opened this week. But the Hirshhorn has almost never thrown a party for an opening alone. This gala doubled as the museum’s fortieth anniversary party and, maybe more important, as a debutante ball for the Hirshhorn’s new director, Melissa Chiu.

“The Hirshhorn has a storied forty-year history, and we’re just in the process of seeing all of the potential for the Hirshhorn to be a major national and international player,” Chiu said, six months into the job. To that end, she’s rebuilt the museum’s leadership, nearly doubling the number of trustees (from ten to eighteen). Last October, Chiu hired Gianni Jetzer, former director of the Swiss Institute, as the Hirshhorn’s curator-at-large. The next month, she named her chief curator: Stéphane Aquin, of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

“We’re all figuring it out,” Aquin said. “We want to raise the profile and make it a relevant institution again. We’re on the [National] Mall, and that means something—we’re not anywhere in the country. Speaking from the Mall, being a window onto the world, is a top priority for us.”

Left: Senator Tom Udall. Right: Melissa Ho and Paley Center for Media CEO Pat Mitchell.

A few hours into the party, after an extended rain delay, 250 or so guests filed down to the museum’s basement Ring Auditorium to hear a conversation between Neshat and Pat Mitchell, the president and CEO of the Paley Center for Media and former head of PBS. The firmly inside-the-Beltway forum didn’t dwell much on the finer points of Neshat’s photography or Islamic calligraphy. The artist instead showed family photos and recalled stories from her middle-class upbringing in Iran, her brief time at Berkeley before the revolution in 1979, and the traumatic separation from her family that followed.

“She went through all her formative years there [in Iran],” said Senator Tom Udall, speaking of Neshat, whose work he described as “powerful.” He admired her frank discussion about her background: “It educates the subject for all of us.” Udall voted in May, with almost every other US senator, in support for congressional review of any nuclear deal with Iran. (He declined a question about the current status of the negotiations.)

“I really hope that people in politics will come and see this show,” Neshat said. She described it as an allegorical or fictionalized presentation of Iranian political history as well as a look at America’s evolving relationship with Iran. “I don’t claim to know a great deal—I’m not an academic, I’m not a historian, I’m no expert at all. I’m only able to frame important questions that I think are perpetually important.”

The ongoing deliberations between leaders in the White House and Tehran would seem to be a fitting backdrop for Neshat’s artwork (and vice versa). But nuclear negotiations seemed far away on Saturday night. Dazzling guests, many of them hailing from the area’s Persian expat community, sat down to dinner in the Hirshhorn’s plaza late in the evening. A saxophonist toured from table to table. The soft white lighting on the Hirshhorn’s concrete exterior transported the museum to a different place—some other art world, far from Washington.

Left: Outside the Hirshhorn Museum. Right: Collector James Alefantis and Robin Fournier-Bergmann of the Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent.