Museums

In a Landmark Restitution, the U.S. Returns 200 Looted Antiquities From Top Museums and Private Collections to Italy


Painted jars, marble busts, ceramic figurines, and even an ancient Roman statue reportedly sold to Kim Kardashian are part of a trove of 200 objects confiscated by U.S. authorities that have landed in Italy as part of the largest-ever repatriation agreement between the two countries. The objects were surrendered by museums and private collections across the United States.

The haul, which traveled on a commercial flight to Rome on Friday, is estimated to be worth around $10 million. “For years, prestigious museums and private collectors across the United States prominently displayed these Italian historical treasures even though their very presence in America constituted evidence of cultural heritage crimes,” the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., said in a statement.

Around 160 of them are linked to a single antiquities dealer, Edoardo Almagià, a 70-year-old from Rome accused of running a 30-year smuggling operation. Due to statutes of limitations, he is unlikely to face criminal charges. But for Italy, the objects’ return is a victory in its own right.

Pithos with Ulysses, Head of a Maiden, and Baltimore Painter Krater, three of some 200 stolen artifacts the Manhattan D.A. is repatriating to Italy. Photo courtesy of the Manhattan D.A.

Pithos with Ulysses, Head of a Maiden, and Baltimore Painter Krater, three of some 200 stolen artifacts the Manhattan D.A. is repatriating to Italy. Photo courtesy of the Manhattan D.A.

“What is most important is that these very important archaeological findings come back that are part of our culture identity,” Italian police official Roberto Riccardi, who serves in a cultural heritage unit of the Carabinieri, told the New York Times.

Seven of the repatriated artifacts were from the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, including a 2,500-year-old wine cup. The San Antonio Museum of Art returned five Greco-Roman jars and plates and a selection of pottery fragments, while the Cleveland Museum of Art turned over three works.

Others came from galleries and private collections in New York City and Long Island. According to federal documents, Kim Kardashian was in the process of acquiring one of the works, an ancient Roman statue, when it was detained at the U.S. border in 2016. (A spokesman for the celebrity later told Midnight Publishing Group News that Kardashian had “never seen this sculpture,” leading to speculation that her ex Kanye West was behind the scuppered purchase.)

Nearly half of the illicit objects were from the Museum of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Art at Fordham University in the Bronx. The museum opened in 2007 at the school’s Walsh Library, which is named after alumnus and donor William D. Walsh, who gifted his alma mater his collection of 260 antiquities. He later donated an additional 40 objects to the museum, which has since made modest acquisitions of its own.

Fordham has been forced to turn over a cache of about 100 Greco-Roman artifacts valued at close to $2 million, all but two of which come from Almagià. The museum’s holdings still include some 200 antiquities.

Authorities maintain that Walsh, who died in 2013, was unaware of Almagià’s illicit actions, but news coverage of the museum’s opening noted the potential for looted art.

“It’s a slightly imprudent act on the part of the university, because a lot of it is not provenanced,” Richard Hodges, the director of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, told the New York Times at the time.

For his part, Almagià denied and attempted to minimize the allegations against him when reached by the Times. Investigations into his actions date back to at least 1996. In 2000, he was caught with stolen frescoes from the ancient Roman city of Herculaneum at New York’s Kennedy Airport.

He left the U.S. in 2006 and authorities raided his Upper East Side apartment, finding six looted artifacts. An Italian court acquitted Almagià in a 2012 smuggling case, but the ruling acknowledged he had helped illegally move Italian antiquities.

The Manhattan D.A.’s office believes that other museums around the country still hold artifacts once owned by Almagià, so additional restitutions may be forthcoming.

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Bug Infestations at Museums Surged During Lockdown. Here’s How They Are Fighting Back to Defend Their Art From Pesky Critters


What’s a museum conservator’s greatest enemy? If your mind went straight to men in ski masks, disorderly visitors, or even climate-related threats, you’d be wrong. A much more banal threat haunts these experts’ nightmares: bugs.

And the problem has only gotten worse lately. Many pests are most active in the springtime. Thus, conservators were alarmed when museums were forced to lock down at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020.

“The combination of spring breeding season and dark, undisturbed galleries with no visitors as a result of lockdowns created favorable conditions for pests to thrive,” Madeline Corona, assistant conservator, decorative arts and sculpture conservation at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, told Midnight Publishing Group News recently. “It’s no surprise that museums all over the world saw an uptick in pest activity during this time.”

At the Getty, shortly after lockdown began in the spring 2020, routine pest monitoring revealed an uptick in the number of webbing clothes moths in some of the decorative arts galleries. Having located the unwelcome guests hiding around one of the South Pavilion decorative arts galleries’ most popular works—the pink 18th-century French day bed—the museum embarked on a year-long project to deep clean the galleries.

This level of intense concern about infestation is hardly unique to L.A. As Corona puts it, “Pests are a constant, inherent challenge in collections care worldwide.”

 

Bugs Everywhere

According to a spokesperson for the British Museum, the biggest threat it sees is from webbing clothes moth Tineolla bisselliella, which “can pose a risk to collections with a high organic content.” These common moths will munch through clothes, tapestries, even carpets.

Other pests that pose significant threats to museum collections, especially in the U.K, include bugs like silverfish, which eat books, paper, and cotton, and carpet beetle larvae, which munch on silk, wool, fur, and feathers. 

Silverfish in three pieces on the torn cover of an old book.

Silverfish in three pieces on the torn cover of an old book.

Even at museums that don’t have original textiles on display or organic objects in the collection, like London’s quirky cabinet of curiosities, Sir John Soane’s Museum, clothes moths still pose a threat. “They are a threat to reproduction textiles such as wool curtains and carpets and are more active here than other pests such as carpet beetle and silver fish,” the museum’s conservator Jane Wilkinson explained. 

Fortunately, many of the U.K.’s institutions had carefully thought-out procedures in place to avoid infestation during lockdown. Neither the British Museum, Sir John Soane’s Musuem, nor the Victoria & Albert Museum, which looks after an impressive 14,000-piece collection of garments from the last five centuries, reported any increase in pest activity during lockdown—in fact, the V&A reported a decrease in pest infestations.

But experts at all three museums attributed this to rigorous cleaning processes, as well as official IPM (Integrated Pest Management) policies and procedures which allowed them to keep the necessary expertise on the ground at all times, monitoring insect traps, inspecting collections, and doing environmental checks.

 

Gameifying Pest Control

Not all institutions have been able to keep eagle eyes on site at all times during the pandemic. With limited numbers of expert museum staff on the ground, it became more important than ever to ensure that frontline workers—from cleaners to security staff—were educated about how to spot pests that may look harmless but that could have devastating effects on collections.

To this end, Helena Jaeschke, a conservator at the Southwest Museums Development consultancy in the U.K., even developed a card game called Save the Museum. The deck has 26 cards, each featuring life-sized silhouettes of common pests with more information about the damage they inflict on the reverse of the card. 

Save the Museum card deck. Image via Conservation Resources.

Save the Museum card deck. Image via Conservation Resources.

“You can flick through the cards to learn details about pests and possible treatments whilst having a coffee break, or else challenge each other with a game,” Jaeschke said in a statement. “It’s a great way for everyone to become more confident in identifying and dealing with pests and protecting our heritage.”

The cards are available to buy online. Decks have been delivered to some 138 museums in the southwest that signed onto the region’s Pest Partners initiative, along with kits designed to help museums identify, trap, and track pest activity.

 

Counting Moths at the Met

Teamwork and proactive examination is also very much a part of the battle plan at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. “We have a comprehensive integrated pest management program,” said Lisa Pilosi, conservator in charge of objects conservation at the Met. “Even through there are specific people dedicated to that program, it’s kind of a museum-wide responsibility to think about this.”

Though the museum has one IPM program administrant and research scientists focused on preventive conservation issues including identifying pests and working on mitigation, “we sort of fan out from there, where every curatorial and conservation department has at least one person who’s assigned to the moth monitoring process.”

This includes maintaining moth traps throughout the building, “especially in areas we think might be problematic. These assigned staff members check them on a regular basis and we keep a museum-wide record of where we’re finding moths. So it’s a matter of where is it ticking up.”

Adult Clothes Moth (Tineola bisselliella). ©Historyonics.

Adult Clothes Moth (Tineola bisselliella). ©Historyonics.

In addition, Pilosi says, “Our guards are super observant and they are always looking at the collection and what’s going on.”

A few days after the shutdown in March 2020, a group including the leaders of the collections emergency team met and came up with a list of about 30 staff who have collections responsibility, who were either in walking distance of the museum or who were close enough to come in with their car. They identified everywhere there was art or an important archive, whether on display, in storage, or in libraries. “We made a roster so that every two or three days a team of three from this larger group would walk through some of those spaces… so we had eyes on everything.”

 

Experimenting With Micro-Wasps

Some U.K. institutions are pushing the practice even further with the use of scientific experimentation. The National Trust, which is a heritage charity that looks after more than 500 historic properties—including castles, ancient monuments, gardens, parks and nature reserves around the U.K.—is trialing an inventive way to crack down on its uptick in pests. 

“There’s no doubt lockdown suited our resident bugs,” assistant national conservator Hilary Jarvis said. The problem was compounded by mild winter conditions followed by a particularly warm spring, and the result was that 173 of National Trust properties reported record numbers of insects, representing an 11 percent total increase in pests from the 2019 report. 

Blickling Hall in Norfolk, a historic property believed to have been where Anne Boleyn was born, was particularly affected by clothes moths, which caused damage to some of its collections, including a tapestry of Peter the Great that was gifted to the property owner by Catherine the Great in the 1760s.

A card dispenser, containing c. 2,400 parasitoid wasps, in an oak drawer. ©Historyonics.

A card dispenser, containing c. 2,400 parasitoid wasps, in an oak drawer. ©Historyonics.

Following scientific research, it decided to experiment with a natural pest-control method by releasing microscopic wasps that are clothes moths’ “natural enemy.” 

Called Trichogramma evanescens, these tiny parasitic wasps are just 0.5 mm in length and nearly invisible to the human eye. They are supplied in small card dispensers containing up to 2,400 wasps that can be discreetly hung or placed around the property. Without being harmful to humans or other animals, the wasp parasites seek out moth eggs and lay their own eggs inside them to hatch new wasps. After laying eggs, they die naturally and disappear “inconspicuously into house dust.” 

The trial also includes the deployment of specially prepared female moth pheromones, which could disrupt adult mating by confusing the male moths.

The National Trust began the trial in February 2021, and Jarvis reported limited early results at the most recent Pest Odyssey conference earlier this month, joining organizations like the U.K. Pest Odyssey Network for support and advice from specialists in heritage pest control. Early data after six months suggest a greater drop in moths when the wasps were used in combination with the pheromone disruption, compared with just using pheromone disruption on its own. But Jarvis said these numbers should be looked at with caution: the warmer weather and lockdown surge in pests in 2020 boosted comparable figures, which could give a false impression of the extent of the drop. 

The trial continues, and given the stakes, museums around the world are watching.

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Museums Are Dipping Their Toes Into the Wild World of NFTs. Here Is What They Need to Know Before Plunging All the Way In


NFTs have roused major interest (and cash) on the commercial side of the art world of late. This summer, the omnipresent blockchain-based collectibles made the leap into the institutional landscape of museums, after a small but notable delay.

Several public collections from around the world have taken the bait, announcing that they would sell NFT versions of their art. For some, it was in hopes of recuperating money that was lost during the pandemic. For others, it was a curatorial exploration or display of institutional power. For all of them, it’s been a way to stir up attention and a bid to reach new audiences.

A quick run-down of recent museum NFT initiatives: the tech-loving Uffizi in Florence sold an NFT of a painting by Michelangelo, Doni Tondofor a cool €140,000 ($170,000) in May. More recently, this month, the Hermitage announced its plan to sell several NFTs connected to masterpieces from its collection, hot on the heels of the Kansong Art and Culture Foundation in Seoul’s decision to tokenize a national treasure to help keep its operation afloat. The Whitworth in Manchester is also incorporating a major NFT sale of William Blake’s work, The Ancient of Days NFT, into an exhibition about the economy.

It seems that despite the divergent tacks, NFTs are becoming something like a new form of digital merch—albeit with a potentially heftier price tag than, say, Mona Lisa tea towels or limited edition silk scarves printed with Monet’s flowers. But as with any new medium, there are sure to be growing pains. Are museums jumping in too soon? And as countries consider new legislation to govern the cryptocurrency trade, what are the pitfalls?

“This may sound like science fiction, but with the NFT explosion, this transformation is happening much faster than museums may realize,” said Jason Bailey, cofounder and CEO of Club NFT.

Cinello founder and CEO Franco Losi (L) and Uffizi director Eike Schmidt (R) with Michelangelo's Doni Tondo (1505-06).

Cinello founder and CEO Franco Losi (left) and Uffizi director Eike Schmidt (right) with Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo (1505-06), which sold as an NFT this summer.

New Funds, New Patrons

“My own kids don’t know who William Blake is, but they know what an NFT is,” said Alistair Hudson, the director of the Whitworth, speaking on the phone from Manchester.

He sees the advent of NFTs as an opportunity to achieve two goals at once: to offer education on digital collectibles and reach new audiences. “We are not doing this just to make money or to look at it is as a commercial revenue stream, but as part of our intellectual and curatorial considerations,” Hudson said. “NFTs are being exchanged and traded by school kids and also in the upper end of the market by digital billionaires, showing the power of your wallet. The whole thing is a demonstration of financial power.”

The institution has a particularly thoughtful approach: They will sell 50 NFTs of William Blake’s 1794 work The Ancient of Days on the eco-friendly NFT marketplace Hic et Nunc (actually, they are using multispectral imaging equipment to generate something that is an interesting new high-tech version of the familiar image).

Crucially, profits from the sale will go towards the Whitworth’s community projects, and the museum is hoping it will generate a revenue stream that lasts for years to come. That is because written into the blockchain are smart contracts enshrining royalties to the museum every time one of the Blake works is resold.

“We are interested in looking at how we can recalibrate the economic system of the museum to fit with the shape of the new world,” Hudson said. “NFTs have the potential to create a more democratic form of philanthropy… It is not about us reinforcing the capital of the institution. It’s about generating new forms of capital that can be of public benefit.”

Hito Steyerl speaking with Martti Kalliala from Amnesia Scanner and Joseph Vogel about crypto and art at Studio Bonn, hosted by Kolja Reichert.

Hito Steyerl speaking with Martti Kalliala from Amnesia Scanner and Joseph Vogel about crypto, art, and NFTs at Studio Bonn, hosted by Kolja Reichert.

Bailey, an expert on NFTs who has helping the Whitworth with its sale, is hopeful this strategy of seeking new patrons could help diversify the museum’s base of support. “Decentralized finance could change the way museums raise money and reduce dependency on a small number of high-net-worth patrons whose values do not always align with the communities museums are designed to serve,” he said.

This new kind of fundraising comes with its own challenges. Zachary Kaplan from the web art organization Rhizome recently received the largest gift in its history via an NFT sale. He told Midnight Publishing Group News that there are still some “caveats” to be smoothed out between art NFTs and institutions.

“There are still barriers for nonprofits,” he said. “For example, the exchanges are not optimized towards new or small institutional users.” He added that “the value of NFTs is driven by engagement from their artist and collector community, which does not overlap 1:1 with traditional museum supporters.” Successful projects, he said, will need partnerships between institutions and creators where creators are “in the lead, engaging their community for the cause they support.”

Rafaël Rozendaal, Endless Nameless (2021). Courtesy of the artist and Rhizome.

Rafaël Rozendaal, Endless Nameless (2021). Courtesy of the artist and Rhizome.

Legal Questions

The reason that museums have been comparatively slower on the uptake than other segments of the art world likely has something to do with the red tape around what they can and cannot do with works in the public domain.

For the Hermitage, which is selling NFTs of works like Leonardo da Vinci’s Madonna Litta (1490), Vincent van Gogh’s Lilac Bush (1889), and Claude Monet’s Corner of the Garden at Montgeron (c. 1876), the experiment is simply about exploring the new format in a nation where much of the crypo trade is outlawed. The Hermitage does not even intend to earn money, according to its general director Michael Piotrovsky, who is spearheading a sale together with Binance, a crypto trading platform that has been riddled with legal issues.

The Russian museum is splitting famous works in its collection into not one but two NFTs—one of the digital tokens will forever reside in its collection and the other will go to the eventual buyers. “Our financial issues are measured in billions,” Piotrovsky told Forbes Russia. “It’s not serious to resolve financial issues with the aid of tokens… For the moment, we want to see what sort of reception this form gets.”

The Hermitage’s approach is informed by Russia’s strict laws governing cryptocurrency trading, which went into effect in January. The museum has found a way to comply—though it has offered little information on exactly how the sale will work in this regard. Some suggest it is exploiting a loophole that NFTs are not explicitly mentioned in the new laws.

The Uffizi was one of the quickest to enter the new space, perhaps unsurprisingly. Under its upstart director Eike Schmidt, the home of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus has also been quick to jump on TikTok and even launched playful cooking shows during lockdown. Enthusiastically entering the NFT arena, it sold Doni Tondo for €140,000 ($170,000), taking a 50/50 split of the profits with their technology partner Cinello.

At the time of the drop, the museum announced they would also put NFTs of other classics in the collection up for sale: Birth of Venus, Raphael’s Madonna del Granduca, and Caravaggio’s Bacchus were all on the list to be turned into tokens.

“There is a component of spreading knowledge of these works of art,” Schmidt told Midnight Publishing Group News. “But just as in the past you could not run a museum through the sale of posters and postcards, we won’t be able to run a museum of the future through digital twins.”

The Uffizi museum in Florence, Italy. Photo by Giovanni Mereghetti/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images.

The Uffizi museum in Florence, Italy. Photo by Giovanni Mereghetti/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images.

The upcoming sales are being put on hold, according to Schmidt while the Italian culture ministry looks into legislation on digital sales and, in particular, NFT reproductions of works owned by national museums. “Hopefully [we do not have to wait] for too long, because we do not want to miss the next phase of our sale,” he said. (The culture ministry did not answer repeated requests for more information about their possible legislation.)

While he looks forward to continuing with its NFT sales (pending the government go-ahead), he is also sure that the real value of NFTs for museums lies elsewhere. “The blockchain technology is far more interesting for new creations of works of art and for other sectors of the museum, such as ticket sales and smart contracts. We are looking into that actively.”

Different Possibilities

In a recent discussion at Studio Bonn, artist Hito Steyerl laid out her skepticism about blockchain, crypto, and NFTs, as well as the cultural sphere’s optimism about them. “The centralization of power is happening within the crypto-sphere,” warned the artist.

In fact, she announced that she has been “squatting” on Ethereum addresses of cultural institutions like the Humboldt Forum, Berlin, and the Bundeskunsthalle, a major cultural institution in Bonn. “The entire art world is mine,” she quipped.

Steyerl’s point, though symbolic, raises important questions about the ethics around privatizing objects, public goods, or just space in general on the blockchain. Should institutions really be selling off original digital versions of their works into private hands?

Views of the State Hermitage Museum and Winter Palace St Petersburg, Russia. Photo: by Julian Finney/Getty Images.

Views of the State Hermitage Museum and Winter Palace St Petersburg, Russia. Photo: by Julian Finney/Getty Images.

Bailey, who advised the Whitworth and has helped the museum incorporate the NFT sale into their programming, urges other museums to harness this moment for engagement and education. But he also advises caution—do not sign your art away too quickly.

“Make sure you understand what NFTs are and the role they will play in the future before you sign away your rights to the NFTs in your collection,” he said. “I use the example of Walt Disney, who in the 1930s refused to sign his rights to television away even though most people had no idea what it was at the time. By 1966, it was estimated that an astronomical 100 million people were tuning in to watch Disney television shows.”

Navigating the stickier issues of the NFT boom while taking advantage of its opportunities will be a balancing act. One must commend the various institutions who are sticking their necks out, and willing to make the first mistakes that others can learn from. In fact, the Whitworth is currently planning to chronicle all the highs and lows of its NFT sales in an upcoming exhibition in 2023 on the subject of economics and art exhibitions.

“The great unknown is the perpetual nature of the blockchain,” Hudson said. “What does it mean to have a work functioning in perpetuity? One of our jobs is to disseminate images… This is a way of doing that. We are taking an image from 1827 and making it operate in the world anew.”

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Try These 10 Tasty Cocktail Recipes That Frick Collection Curators Mixed for the Museum’s Hit Lockdown Video Series


For over a year now, art lovers looking to end their weeks on a high note have been turning to the Frick Collection, which for 65 straight Fridays has offered new episodes in its YouTube series “Cocktails With a Curator.”

Each installment shares a drink recipe and invites viewers to join in at home while learning about an artwork in its storied collection of paintings, sculptures, and decorative arts.

Today, that streak comes to an end, with deputy director and chief curator Xavier Salomon having poured his final drink for online audiences last Friday night.

“Like all good things, they naturally come to an end at some point,” Salomon told Midnight Publishing Group News in an email.

The series ended like it began last April: with a Manhattan. Salomon chose that first cocktail in tribute to the island that the museum calls home at a time when New York was under siege, at the epicenter of a global pandemic.

Giovanni Bellini, <i>St. Francis in the Desert</I> (1480). Courtesy of the Frick Collection, New York.

Giovanni Bellini, St. Francis in the Desert (1480). Courtesy of the Frick Collection, New York.

“It started at the time of lockdown and forced quarantines, when people could not go out with friends to share a drink, so the idea of mixing cocktails with art came about fairly quickly,” Salomon said.

He mixed that first Manhattan, which includes whiskey and sweet vermouth, to go with one of the Frick’s most famous paintings, Giovanni Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert. Last week, Salomon wrapped things up with a variation of the drink, a Black Manhattan, which swaps Amaro, a bitter Italian digestif, for the traditional sweet vermouth. In the meantime, he discussed Arrangement in Black and Gold: Comte Robert de Montesquiou-Fezensac by James McNeill Whistler.

“My favorite cocktails are also some of the best known and traditional,” Salomon said, “like the Martini Vesper, Manhattan, and Mint Julep. On the other hand, I had to struggle to drink an Ouzo Lemonade—I never liked the taste of anise.”

The video series was a surprise hit for the Frick, having been collectively viewed more than 1.7 million times to date. (Pre-pandemic, a typical Frick program might top out at just 400 YouTube views.) In May, the museum was honored with a Webby award for the series.

“I have always been surprised and humbled by the success of the program,” Salomon said. “I am glad that people all over the world responded to the simple idea that works of art from the past can have an effect on us and improve our lives, especially at times of crisis.”

Here are 10 recipes to try from “Cocktails With a Curator.”

Xavier’s Manhattan

1 part Italian Vermouth
1 part Bourbon
Stir well and strain into a cocktail glass
Maraschino cherry

 

Aperol Spritz

3 parts Aperol
2 parts dry prosecco
1 splash of sparkling water
Garnish with orange or lemon

 

Vesper

3 parts dry gin
1 part vodka
½ part Lillet Blanc
Chilled

 

Toreador

1 part blanco tequila
½ part apricot brandy
½ part fresh lime juice
1 dash bitters

 

Whiskey Sour

2 parts Whiskey
¾ parts simple syrup
¾ parts lemon juice
serve chilled

 

Jaded Countess

1 part absinthe
½ part vodka
½ part fresh lemon juice
½ part simple syrup
stir with ice and strain
top with champagne and garnish with a lemon twist

 

Widow’s Kiss

1½ parts Calvados
½ part Benedictine D.O.M.
½ part Yellow Chartreuse liqueur
2 dashes of Angostura bitters
mint leaf

 

Genever Brûlée

2 oz genever
1 teaspoon brown sugar
A few dashes of classic bitters
A dash of orange bitters
A splash of sparkling water
Garnished with a caramelized orange slice

 

Bloody Mary

1 part Vodka
2 parts Tomato juice
Lemon juice
Worcester sauce
Few drops of Tabasco sauce
Horseradish
Salt and pepper
Ice
Garnish with celery, lemon, olives

 

Limoncello Spritz

1 part limoncello
1 part sparkling lemonade
Topped with Prosecco and garnished with mint

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Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Controversial Redesign Plan for the Hirshhorn Museum’s Sculpture Garden Get a Final Green Light


The U.S. Commission of Fine Arts has voted to approve Japanese artist Hiroshi Sugimoto’s proposed redesign of the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C.

The decision, made in a split 5–2 vote by a committee including four new Joe Biden appointees, none of whom are landscape architects, was not without controversy.

“The Hirshhorn benefitted at the Commission of Fine Arts today from the commissioners’ lack of experience, the commissioners’ lack of understanding of commission policies and procedures, and because for the first time in some 20 years, not one of the commissioners is a landscape architect,” Charles A. Birnbaum, CEO of the Cultural Landscape Foundation, told Midnight Publishing Group News in an email.

Sugimoto was tapped to lead the revitalization of the garden after putting his stamp on the institution through the recent renovation of its lobby. He called for expanding the museum’s historic reflecting pool to build a stage for performances.

The plan will include two new entrances and accessible paths throughout the garden, Beth Ziebarth, head of accessability at the Smithsonian, said at a public hearing held by the commission that was broadcast over Zoom.

“Universal accessibility is an overarching institutional initiative to provide equitable access to all visitors wherever possible,” she said.

Rendering of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s redesign of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Image courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.

Rendering of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s redesign of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Image courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.

But Sugimoto’s design hit a roadblock when Cultural Landscape Foundation voiced its opposition, claiming that the proposed changes would harm the visions of architect Gordon Bunshaft, who designed the museum in 1974, and landscape architect Lester Collins, who led a 1981 redesign of the grounds.

At issue, among other elements, were Sugimoto’s plans to add stone walls inspired by Japanese dry-stacking techniques to the garden.

The museum contended that Bunshaft and Collins drew on Japanese gardens for their original designs, but the Cultural Landscape Foundation said the stone would be a disruption of the Modernist aesthetic of the garden, which exclusively features aggregate concrete.

Rendering of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s redesign of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Image courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.

Rendering of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s redesign of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Image courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.

Although the redesign had received “concept approval” from the commission in 2019, Collins’s 1981 design had since become eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Cultural Landscape Foundation had hoped that the committee would reconsider preserving the property as work of art in its own right, as Bunshaft intended. (On its website, the Hirshorn says the architect imagined the space as “a large piece of functional sculpture.”)

But landscape architect Laurie Olin supported the redesign, writing in a report for the commission that the garden was “disjointed, tired, and in need of transformation,” and that Sugimoto’s design is “far superior” and “will add a worthy layer.”

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