Diary

A Tale of Two Cities

Left: Artists Mark di Suvero and Charles Gaines with Gretchen Berggruen. Right: Hirshhorn director Melissa Chiu. (All photos: Liz Gorman)

MONDAYS ARE SLOW FOR CONGRESS. The so-called bed-check votes that kick off the week for the world’s greatest deliberative body keep senators and representatives grounded in Washington, DC, deciding new names for post offices and confirming benign appointments. Otherwise, Senator Tom Udall might have graced one of the biggest parties the National Mall’s ever seen—a party that took place in Lower Manhattan.

That left Jill Cooper Udall, a board member for the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, without a date for the museum’s fortieth anniversary gala at 4 World Trade Center. So she asked Iris Weinshall, Senator Chuck Schumer’s wife, to join her. “This is how Senate spouses spend their Monday nights,” Weinshall said, greeting friends on 4WTC’s sixty-eighth floor.

Maybe so, but it’s not the way that Smithsonian Institution museums usually throw down. For its fortieth birthday, the Hirshhorn named forty artists as special honorees, each of whom has played a special role in the museum’s history. Most of these artists, and four hundred guests, showed up to celebrate. The gala—which was the single biggest fund-raising event in the museum’s history, garnering nearly $1.6 million—brought together a biennial’s worth of artists for a dinner party.

Left: Artist Mark Bradford with Whitney Museum curator Carter Foster. Right: Artist Joseph Kosuth.

Paula Cooper’s table was the first to get rowdy; she and Mark di Suvero spent most of the proceedings howling at jokes between the two of them. By the time that David Skorton, the newly installed secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, got up to deliver a speech on the importance of the arts, the suits had lost the room, but no one seemed to mind.

“Sometimes you honor one or two artists during these events,” said Jason Moran, the pianist and artistic director for jazz at the Kennedy Center. “But to gather a bunch of people together, and Martin Puryear walks into the conversation? It’s like, ‘Okay, Theaster Gates, you’ve got to shut the fuck up because Martin Puryear’s here.’ ”

Moran was kidding; if anyone hushed the crowd, it was Gates, who blended performance into his duties as party emcee. Accompanied by the Black Monks of Mississippi, Gates led a spiritual roll call, shouting out the names of artist honorees. “Brother Gilliam! Brother Gilliam!”—for Sam Gilliam, one of a few DC artists on the roster. “Shirin! Shirin! Shirin! Shirin!”—for Shirin Neshat, over and over, building the room into applause. “Brother Lawrence! Turn the page! Turn the motherfucking page!”—for Lawrence Weiner, a star in a room full of them.

Left: Jack Macrae and artist Theaster Gates. Right: Artist Shirin Neshat.

“I’ve been working that rotunda,” said Mark Bradford, referring to the Hirshhorn—225 miles away in DC—where he is preparing for a major installation next year. Bradford is one of the artists that the Hirshhorn’s director, Melissa Chiu, and chief curator, Stéphane Aquin, have pulled into the museum’s orbit over the past year (Chiu’s first at the Hirshhorn). His show is an example of the programming that Chiu holds up to critics back home who felt spurned by the Hirshhorn’s decision to celebrate in New York: Fund-raising in Manhattan supports art for DC. Other artists at the gala, like Charles Gaines, are new to the Hirshhorn fold.

“This is really new,” said Charles Gaines, whose work the Hirshhorn has only acquired in the last month. “Usually these kinds of events don’t interest me. But I had a chance to talk to people I hadn’t talked to in a decade.”

Left: Art historian Andrea Glimcher and artist Lawrence Weiner. Right: Alicia Hall Moran and Jason Moran.

In the end, the gala honored both cities. Chiu announced that Joseph Kosuth would be giving a major work to the Hirshhorn to honor Aaron and Barbara Levine, DC-based collectors who have brought important Conceptual works from New York (and well beyond) to the capital. The two were aboard the Amtrak train that derailed in Philadelphia in May, and the gala celebrated their recovery as much as it did any artist’s work. Kosuth beamed (in his pensive way) about his relationship with the Levines, who are his biggest collectors, and with the Hirshhorn. “It looms in my history, and in my consciousness,” he said.

“I love DC,” said Gates, who is now a board member at the Hirshhorn, connected closely with the forthcoming Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, and is planning for a solo show at the National Gallery of Art. “But there are some things I want for the Smithsonian,” he said. “It’s going to require subtle leadership. I want the Hirshhorn to be more brown. I want the African American museum to be smarter.”

This was familiar ground: cultural politics. But talk eventually gave way to drinks and laughter, as most of the top forty filed out with their Hirshhorn-shaped minicakes in hand. Few stayed longer than Gaines, who danced while other guests trickled over to the windows to take in the view of new towers rising in TriBeCa.

Left: Collectors Barbara Levine and Aaron Levine. Right: Dealer Paula Cooper, artist Mark di Suvero, and Sarah Wendell.

Left: Artist Christo and Jonathan Henery. Right: Artist Anish Kapoor.

ALL IMAGES