Hirshhorn Museum of Contemporary Art

  • Arts & Culture
  • 1974

Joseph Hirshhorn’s parents brought him to America from Latvia in 1907, as an eight-year-old. When he reached 13, he dropped out of school to get a job, and by 15 he was working on Wall Street. He saved $255 and used it to become a teenage stockbroker. He had a knack for making money, and used it to start collecting art, beginning with two small works by Albrecht Durer he purchased at age 18.

By the 1940s, he had become rich thanks to some mining investments, and had begun to quietly accumulate a substantial collection of modern sculpture. He made friends with many living artists. After he loaned some pieces to the Guggenheim Museum in 1962, galleries began to vie for his collection.

Particularly aggressive in courting Hirshhorn was Smithsonian president Dillon Ripley, who offered a location on the National Mall. The museum opened in 1974, in an unfortunate new building designed by Gordon Bunshaft. The structure became “known around Washington as the bunker or gas tank, lacking only gun emplacements or an Exxon sign,” wrote Ada Louise Huxtable of the New York Times. She described the structure as “born-dead, neo-penitentiary modern…not so much aggressive or overpowering as merely leaden.”

Hirshhorn’s collecting impulse, however, was not dead. He kept acquiring, and left another large bequest upon his death in 1981. Today, the museum houses over 12,000 works.