UNSW Art & Design alum Melissa Chiu is making headlines and achieving progress for contemporary art and equity as director of the prestigious Smithsonian Hirshhorn Museum in Washington D.C. – an institution which she has led transformative work to revitalise.
Chiu is the first non-American to run the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the contemporary art institution within the world’s largest museum, education, and research complex, the Smithsonian Institution. Since she was appointed as director in 2014, the U.S. museum has seen a 200 percent increase in attendance, due largely to the Yayoi Kusama show in 2017, the organisation's most popular show ever. If the attendance figures hold at this rate, the Hirshhorn will have the 3rd highest attendance amongst modern and contemporary art museums, coming in just after the MoMA and the Whitney – no small feat considering both those are in New York City, arguably the epicentre of the contemporary art world.
Chiu’s remarkable success has found her the focus of several high-profile features recently. For example Time Magazine profiled her in their section The Boss, in which women share how they became successful and lessons learned along the way. In this story the Darwin native discusses her goals as a curator throughout her life. “As someone who has Australian and Chinese heritage, much of my focus was about connecting Australia to its large and diverse, and somewhat underrepresented, Asian-Australian community” Chiu explains. She goes on to explain, “When I joined the [Hirshhorn] we had not made contemporary women artists a focus of our exhibitions, but since then, half of our single-artist shows have been of women, which is unprecedented for the museum.” Chiu’s work championing female artists has also found her celebrated in Vanity Fair. Another feature highlighting Chiu’s success appeared in the Washington Post last year, where Chiu spoke about her favorite spots around D.C. to spend time and soak up culture - not surprisingly for an Australian expat, they include her picks for best coffee.
During her tenure, the museum has also launched the Hirshhorn In The City initiative, taking art beyond the museum walls with projects that include a new mural created by Yoko Ono at Union Market and a series of street posters inspired by underground art practices of the 1980s, created by local D.C. artists and arts collectives SUPERWAXX, NoMüNoMü, and No Kings Collective. Later this year, for the first time in its 44-year history, The Hirshhorn’s four-acre outdoor plaza will be entirely devoted to one artist, Korean minimalist Lee Ufan, who will fill the space with approximately 10 new sculptures.
Chiu completed a Masters of Art Administration (now Masters of Curating & Cultural Leadership) at UNSW Art & Design, and has since lectured at Harvard, Yale, Columbia, the Museum of Modern Art, amongst other universities and museums. Since she commenced at the Hirshhorn, they have presented landmark exhibitions by Shirin Neshat, Robert Irwin, and Yayoi Kusama.