By Andrew Finken
Although the exhibits at this Smithsonian Museum may not actually come alive, the kinetic house music and vivid video
jockeying of the After Hours event at the Hirshhorn in Southwest, D.C. on Oct. 14 certainly gave new life to the works on display.
“Andy Warhol: Shadows,” the Hirshhorn’s current premier exhibit, looks a little different when adjacent to the flashing lights of a Latinrave-infused electronic dance party delivered by video artist Bec Stupak. It could be the swelling crowd that upends customary museum sensations, or maybe it is DJ Nancy Whang’s passionate cadence. Come to think of it, it could just be the time of night. Has a museum ever been open this late?
All good points, said Kevin Hull, the museum program director responsible for the Hirshhorn After Hours event. “Our goal is to engage a local audience in something new, something D.C. hasn’t seen before,” Hull said.
A nine-piece psychedelic orchestra, The Chrystal Ark, led by synthesizer Gavin Russom and vocalist Viva Ruiz, delivered a mega performance, judging by the perspiration of hundreds of dancing fans on the sixty-degree evening. A
few security guards even joined the fray after some of the main exhibits closed. Hull said many contemporary museums
around the country have vibrant performance programs, but the Hirshhorn, despite its many strengths, is limited in the number of performances it can offer.
“After Hours is the Hirshhorn’s one chance at a great performance,” he said. “We put a lot of effort into this one.”
Hull said that he invited The Chrystal Ark to headline After Hours because of the multidisciplinary nature of its performance; synthesizer, bass guitar, bongos, multiple vocals and two perpetual dancers overlaid with an electronic
rhythm. Combine this with Stupak’s aurora-like light displays and Hull sees a reflection of the camaraderie of Warhol’s period of contemporary artistry.
“The time in which Andy Warhol was living and working was an amazing time when art and revelry often went together. Visual artists, dancers, actors, musicians and filmmakers worked together in a more fluid way than we see today,” said Hull.
Meanwhile, exhibit tours were packed throughout the evening, although the viewers’ attire differed from that of the average Smithsonian visitor. V-necks and bejeweled purses of the hipster chic replaced the familiar camera straps and fanny packs; stilettos and Puma the insole New Balance. The percolating tempo from below muffled their heel clacks.
The irony of a national museum directing its programming at a local audience is not lost on Hull. Museums generally house the emblematic people, movements and artifacts of cherished eras in meaningful places, and national museums present an entire nation’s memories. But what about a museum devoted to contemporary art?
Hull acknowledges that the Hirshhorn might break from the average Smithsonian’s mandate, if ever so slightly. For example, because the Hirshhorn presents contemporary art, its displays turn over quickly, relative to other national museums. As a result, the Hirshhorn receives more repeat visitors than the typical Smithsonian, as well as a higher share of local visitors. Smithsonian museums mostly target tourists, as evidenced by the hours of operation, 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. But, according to Hull, that need not preclude his museum from offering additional programming for a local audience.
He said that the late evening start of After Hours is reflective of their intention to include area residents and develop their interests. “An event like this can engage local residents, people that may be new to art and D.C. creatives,” said Hull. He said that among the scores of lawyers and federal employees, D.C. possesses a substantial creative community as well.
The Hirshhorn refuses to limit its local programming to after hours. Every day but Sunday the museum offers artistic and educational programming for local children. Everything from photography and broadcasting lessons to contemporary art design is taught on a weekly basis by museum staff, artistic volunteers and Hirshhorn artists-in-residence.
To push the meta-creative envelope a little bit, the museum even offers a program that invites children to create programming for a contemporary art museum.
“To have the Smithsonian museums in your backyard is an amazing resource,” said Hull. “It is good for young people to be engaged in creative activity, and not just academically. The benefits of a creative education are immeasurable.”