Bubble Burst: Smithsonian Puts Pin in Hirshhorn ‘Bubble’ Project

Art Scene

Bubble Burst: Smithsonian Puts Pin in Hirshhorn ‘Bubble’ Project

The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. has scrapped its plans to construct a giant temporary inflatable bubble over its interior courtyard.

Citing a lack of full support and funding, Smithsonian Institution Undersecretary Richard Kurin made the announcement last week. He added that outgoing Hirshhorn director Richard Koshalek would step down on June 29.

Koshalek announced his decision to resign a few weeks ago, after the museum’s board came to a split vote on the Bubble’s fate. Koshalek told the New York Times that he resigned because he felt many of his colleagues were unresponsive to the ideas he strongly believed in, particularly his signature project, the Bubble.

“I wanted the Hirshhorn to become a much more original institution relative to the global context that deals with art and culture,” Koshalek told the Times, noting his vision of creating “a cultural think-tank about the arts and culture that does not exist in Washington.”

Referring passively to the situation, Koshalek further expressed his displeasure to the Washington Post.

“My feeling is when you become the leader of an institution, your responsibility is to raise the standards of expectations for that institution,” Koshalek told the Post. “When it’s not open and responsive to these ideas, it’s not the appropriate situation for somebody like myself.”

Hirshhorn Museum's proposed Bubble (Bottom Right)

The Bubble, officially known as the Seasonal Inflatable Structure project, was first announced in 2009. Despite its design winning a progressive architecture award from Architect magazine in 2011, the project was plagued by numerous setbacks and constant debate. The Washington Post reported that construction costs for the Bubble ballooned from an initial $5 million to $15.5 million, and the New York Times said the museum had only raised $7.8 million after four years of fundraising. According to the Post, Hirshhorn did not receive a single major gift post-Bloomberg LP’s $1 million-plus donation made in 2010.

The fallout from the board’s split vote on May 23, coupled with an internal report concluding that a completed Bubble would operate at a $2.8 million deficit, brought the uncertainty of the project’s future to a head.

“Without the full support of the museum’s board and the funding in place for the fabrication and a viable plan for the operation of the Bubble, we believe it is irresponsible to go forward,” Kurin said.

Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough echoed Kurin’s statement, pointing to “significant financial challenges that affect the entire Smithsonian.”

Hirshhorn sits on the National Mall, midway between the White House and the Capitol. The 150-foot-tall Bubble would have been inflated for two months a year to create space for installations while distinctively connecting the building’s interior and exterior with modern flair.

Below is a detailed rendering of the would-have-been “Bloomberg Bubble.” Do you wish it had come to fruition, or are you glad it didn’t?

Hirshhorn Museum