Haul Casts Pall on Mall

The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

edited by Abram Lerner
Abrams, 770, 1,019 illus. pp., $40.00

Culturally, Washington has been until quite recently one of the most underprivileged of the world’s major capital cities. But during the last ten years, and especially since the opening of the Kennedy Center, Washington’s cultural amenities have increased in volume with a rush. Nor has the art life of Washington, hitherto so quiet and provincial, failed to respond. The National Gallery is being enlarged and its collections added to, especially in the field of twentieth-century art. The Phillips Collection, select, staid, personal, and predominatly European in outlook, maintains an honorable activity. The National Portrait Gallery and the National Collection of Fine Arts, both wholly American, have taken hold of the public’s interest. Admittedly the so-called Institute of Contemporary Art folded, but a number of newly installed dealers now offer frequent exhibitions of assorted contemporary wares.

This is really not a bad state of affairs, more especially when one considers the importance of the various collections in the National Gallery and of the Chinese and Japanese collections in the Freer Gallery. Yet not content with the admirable representation of the modern movement in the Chester Dale and Phillips collections, as well as the modern American paintings in the National Collection, bureaucratic Washington has long been casting jealous glances at the growing modern collections in other cities all over the United States and aspiring to set up an unsurpassable National Museum of Modern Art in the federal capital. For official Washington has a curiously high opinion of the city’s standing in the cultural sphere, and until six months ago suffered from an unjustified sense of inferiority, of lagging behind the rest of the continent, of not being “with it,” because it had never found room for a museum devoted exclusively to modern art among its major “sights.”

S. Dillon Ripley, secretary to the Smithsonian Institution, who has written the foreword to this monumental first catalogue of the newly established Hirshhorn Museum, makes official Washington’s views abundantly clear. “Washington,” he writes, “can take satisfaction in having here on the Mall, and in adjacent sites close by, perhaps as significant a sampling of human creativity over the centuries as has been assembled in one place. And this is true of all the arts, including the art of politics, for from Archives to Congressional Library, to the great galleries and museums, it is, appropriately enough, all here for those who seek to find.”

We live and learn, as they say. Personally, it would not have occurred to me until this moment to think of Washington as a city of great architecture. And I am shocked to discover that one of America’s foremost cultural administrators believes that the “sampling of human creativity over the centuries” to be discovered in Rome, London, New York, or Paris is perhaps less “significant” than that offered by Washington. Of one thing, however, I am sure: until now I have never experienced the least regret over the absence of a Museum of Modern Art in Washington, not least because far…

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