EXCERPTS FROM CHAPTER 9, 1970 – 1976 THE HIRSHHORN MUSEUM ACCOMPLISHMENT, PT. 3
HE WROTE IT, THEY DID IT, HE SAVED IT; TRANSFORMING AMERICA!!
“JOE SEFEKAR’S INSPIRING STORY OF AN IMMIGRANT’S CONTRIBUTION TO THE HEALTH, WELFARE AND ARTS OF UNITED STATES.”
GETTING READY FOR THE OPENING
During this hectic period, I faced a serious challenge. It was early 1974 and I was working like a person with blinders. My concentration focused on October 1974 – the scheduled opening. One morning, upon my arrival at the office, Mr. Lerner introduced me to a man about five years younger than my 57 years. He asked me to find space in our temporary quarters and he suggested I keep him busy. This was a strange request in that it was not explained to me what the purpose was for his presence in our office. I did know that he worked at the Smithsonian National Museum of History and Technology, and that he was a Grade GS-16 (I was a Grade GS-15). It was apparent he was being “kicked upstairs”. This was a method used to enable an individual to retain a high grade when his ability was in question. I certainly wasn’t going to delegate my responsibilities to an individual who could possibly threaten my position. Since I had not been given direct orders to encourage this encroachment, I decided that I would give him a desk in a secluded part of the office, and assigning him some “make work” tasks that would keep him busy. With nothing tangible for him to do, he realized on his own volition that he did not fit in with our organization. Luckily, this slight interruption did not have a noticeable effect on museum plans, which were progressing steadily toward fruition.
If I ever had any qualms about being short, I never had any misgivings about my not being tall. I could look “up” to Mr. Hirshhorn because, although he was short and stocky he never was inhibited. I was short and slight but lack of money did not inhibit me. But I kept my proper distance. On one occasion I approved for payment the invoice for transporting the Art Collection from New York City to Washington, D.C. a cost to be paid by Mr. Hirshhorn. Inasmuch as the move was a huge success and the bill of lading showed no exceptions, I immediately signed off as “received in proper order.”
The next day, Mr. Hirshhorn called the Museum, as he was wont to do and inquired as to why we were processing the invoices so swiftly. I explained that the art had been received in good order and the Register had certified that each item was received and that there was no reason to delay payment. When we couldn’t find any reason to withhold payment on the invoice, he felt he had done his best to “negotiate” a lower cost. The invoice was paid promptly. Mr. Hirshhorn was the consummate businessman.
It was October 1974, the time for the opening of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. The Groundbreaking Ceremony had taken place on January 8, 1969, which included President Lyndon B. Johnson, Chief Justice Earl Warren, and Secretary Dillon Ripley (**picture). And of course, Joseph H. Hirshhorn, wielding their trusty spades, setting the wheels in motion for construction of a Museum, which Ambassador Daniel P. Moynihan, Chairman, Board of trustees, said would last more than a “Hundred Years”. (**Include JHH talk about making his contribution to the United States from humble beginnings of Immigrant roots)
And today as can be imagined it’s value is in untold billions of dollars of irreplaceable pieces of art and sculptures under the auspices of the “Museum.” It has indeed found a lasting home among the greatest works of Art on display in the world. I cannot say enough for the opportunity afforded me by the Hirshhorn Museum, the Smithsonian Institution and of course Mr. Joseph Hirshhorn and the experience working under the guidance of Abram Lerner, the Curator. This can be found in the Opening Day Catalog of the Hirshhorn Collection that was presented to the US government. The attached slideshow provides just the thumbnail sketch of what was a lifetime of dedication that Mr. Hirshhorn amassed over 40 years. Enjoy just a sampling and maybe you too might have an opportunity to visit the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, if you haven’t already. Slideshow of Hirshhorn Collection Catalogue begins now.
Tuesday, October 1, 1974, was a mild day, but in anticipation of rain we contracted for a huge tent in the event of inclement weather. Fortunately, we were able to conduct the activities in and around the building without any inconvenience to the guests.
The Invitation to the opening was on a Museum Logo displayed on a platinum border, with a black circle emblazoned off-center on a white globe, symbolizing the Fountain on the circular Plaza and the encircling Building, The invitation invited the guests to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden at Washington City, October 1, 1974.
Figure #9-19 HIRSHHORN OPENING DAY PROGRAM
It was a handsome reception with “open” bar and dancing. Mr. and Mrs. Hirshhorn tripped the light fantastic during the festivities. One night was for VIPs and Guests; one night was for the Artists and Guests; and one night for Smithsonian Associates, Employees and Guests. It was three nights to remember, a fitting finale to four years of planning, participation, and the satisfaction felt by each individual involved in this historic endeavor.
In early 1975 we were in a sort of shakedown period. All the normal wrinkles in a new building had to be ironed out. The Director wanted a bookshop with educational materials. He steered away from gadgets that weren’t related to the learning process. The staff was involved in developing a long-range schedule of various exhibitions, usually three or four years into the future. This required planning the layout of the exhibition by the curators, exhibition specialists, and historians. Not all items exhibited came from the Hirshhorn collection. A major Retrospective could encompass the best works by a particular artist, i.e., Willem De Kooning, Henry Moore; or selected works of other great collectors, i.e. Sloan Collection. This meant that such art works, supplementing Hirshhorn’s collection would be shipped to the Museum and the cost of shipping, ensuring installing the exhibition would have to be considered in the overall cost. Each exhibition would go through the same steps, and close attention would be given to the current budget costs, and then estimating costs for exhibitions planned three or four years ahead.
This planning required the skills of many people, but the Administrator brought the different efforts together into a logical pattern. The past six years were full of challenges, new learning experiences, and the need for numerous decisions. The Museum had its share of critics as well as champions. One of the challenges we faced was a review of the Smithsonian Institution, the first in the 126 years that the Smithsonian had been in operation. That was a lot of ground to cover, and the Hirshhorn being part of the Smithsonian came in for a lot of examination. We were particularly involved because one of our critics had been snooping around the different Smithsonian offices, had lifted material from the different “in” and “out” correspondence boxes, and then he would write to the different Congressional Committees, spewing ambiguous information. One of these Committees (reviewing the Smithsonian budget) was interested in the activities of the Smithsonian and the Hirshhorn. We had to justify why the Smithsonian needed the Hirshhorn Museum when there were already established a National Collection of Fine Arts and a National Portrait Gallery in Washington.
One of my most memorable Hirshhorn Collection memorabilia from the Opening Night Festivities is a signed, numbered poster for the event. It is hanging in a special place in our home.
Figure #9-20 HIRSHHORN OPENING DAY POSTER
The simple answer was that the Hirshhorn Collection was more in the genre of modern art and its collection of sculptures covers the works of Rodin, Henry Moore and modernists like Alexander. The initial value of the Collection in 1969 was $75,000,000. In 1975 the Collection as estimated at $125,000,000. The Director of the Art Institute of Chicago had, at one time, entertained doubts about the validity of the Hirshhorn Collection. As was the practice in Washington, there evolved from the inspection of the Smithsonian, a request to the General Accounting Office (the watchdog of the Congress) to inspect and issue a report to the Senate by August 4, 1974. A report was subsequently issued which covered such subjects as: Was the Smithsonian empowered to enter into an agreement with Hirshhorn, committing the United States government. To accepting the Collection; What were the 10 original employees doing for 4 years (1970-1974) working in New York and Washington, to justify the time spent in storing, selecting and preserving the works of art in the “Collection.” Well, the final report was issued, all pertinent questions answered, and the Chairman of the Board of Trustees, Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan said it was the first report he had seen where the General Accounting Office was satisfied with all aspects of their investigation (**include budget reports).
Once the Gala Opening took place, the staff knew that with this behind us, the real guts and glory lay ahead. Now it was the day-to-day operations that will really set the Hirshhorn apart as a world-class Museum. One of the first things that went into effect besides making sure that the throngs of visitors both tourists and locals were taken care of, were two important aspects of Museum keeping. One was that our team of docents would be always there to provide tours of this newly open attraction and curiosity. The docent is an unheralded part of the Museum operations; it is a person who acts as a guide, typically on a voluntary basis, in a museum or art gallery. As would be the case, I was very pleased with the way our cadre of docents took pride in making sure that their tours turned out to be both informative and artsy
The other item that also played an important part in the unqualified success that the Museum was to introduce “the monthly newsletter,” requiring a complete cooperative effort by the entire staff to ensure that the activities promoted by the Museum reached out to all the possible outlets for attracting new and a continued regular multitude of committed art and museum goers. The following Newsletter kicked off a litany of details, dates and events that kept us busy during this shakedown period. (** 1st Month, October 1974 Hirshhorn Museum’s Newsletter)
Just prior to the opening of the Museum, Mr. Lerner selected a Deputy Director as his assistant. I had enjoyed my relation with Mr. Lerner, being in a de facto assistant position; I did not feel that this action belittled my job. Mr. Stephen Weil was a lawyer and former Director of a Museum in New York. The Hirshhorn Museum was entitled to a Director and Deputy Director. Mr. Lerner treated me well, awarding me several with-in grade promotions, which provide in-grade increments. Weil was a take hold individual, but Mr. Lerner kept him in check. In a public relations interview, Weil said he “believed in rocking the boat.” I’m a great believer in holding on to the “gun wale”. Weil’s first efforts were to try to replace several division chiefs – I quickly derailed such plans. He got involved in certain personnel problems and, in one case, we disagreed on a decision and he threatened to throw me through a window. That didn’t bother me except we were on the fourth floor. We defused the situation, and got along pretty well after that. However, at this point, I began thinking that this is a good time to make my departure. Everything was fine, salary was great, had no enemies – I could leave in a good frame of mind. However, this would not be the case for the immediate future. As indicated, the challenges of keeping the Museum functional and in smooth working order would require even more vigilance. I was surely up to the task as will be seen in the next part of the “Hirshhorn Accomplishment.” And so ends the third of four parts for Chapter 9’s posting.
**Included will be many of the memorandums and letters to the Smithsonian and budget preparation. Correspondence with Al Lerner, Joe and Olga Hirshhorn and of course the myriad of pictures, diagrams, communications and documents that went into building the museum.
During this period an equally rewarding event took place in our family’s life. It just happened to be the preparation and wedding of my dearest daughter Bonnie Lynn Sefekar to a most worthy young man, Lee Elliott Landau on Saturday, August 3, 1974. It will also mention Bill Sefekar’s running for the Maryland State Legislature in the 1974 Democratic primary.
Copyright © 2016 William Sefekar
** Material will appear in book
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