Theaster Gates Takes Center Stage at Hirshhorn Museum’s 40th Anniversary Gala
Theaster Gates performed a work by Joseph Beuys.
“I can tell the vibe is about to change,” whispered one intrepid partygoer. We were at the 40th anniversary gala for the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden on the 68th floor of the recently-opened 4 World Trade Center building, where floor-to-ceiling windows give way to glittering views of Lower Manhattan. She was correct: the vibe did change thanks to Theaster Gates, who along with his musical collaborators The Black Monks of Mississippi, led a rousing procession towards the candle-topped dinner tables.
“This is a very different environment from the one that we normally work in,” Gates told artnet News. “It’s both an honor and a stretch to try to take something that is normally a solitary, or maybe even a reverent, work and make it absolutely public and absolutely secular.”
The performance began with a ghost-like warble as Gates and the Black Monks, boomboxes and microphones in hand, stood in one corner of the room. As guests broke away from their conversations, a circle formed and the singers began to chant. “Walk with me, walk with me, walk with me,” echoed throughout the unfurnished floor.
“It felt good to do what we do against the counter-tone,” Gates said of performing at the gala. “I think, sometimes, that’s the way the world is.”
While the guest list was comprised of various boldface names from the realms of art and philanthropy in New York and Washington, DC, it was reiterated often that the evening’s main emphasis was on the artists. The museum used the 40th birthday celebration as an opportunity to honor 40 important artists it has worked with through the decades, including Chuck Close, Marina Abramović, Dan Colen, Shirin Neshat, and Mark Bradford.
It was also an important evening for director Melissa Chiu (the wife of artnet News editor-in-chief Ben Genocchio), who celebrated one year at the helm of the institution.
“It’s been an incredible year,” Chiu told artnet News. “The Hirshhorn is an amazing institution in so many ways, but what really attracted me is the relationship it has with artists, and so that’s what we’re doing tonight—really looking at them.”
Gates and the Black Monks took the stage again after dinner to enact the 1968 Joseph Beuys performance Ja, ja, ja, ja, ja, nee, nee, nee, nee, nee, which they interjected with the name of each artist honoree. We couldn’t help but notice that he harped on Shirin Neshat’s name, mentioning it several times throughout the jazz-infused performance. But what did it mean?
“Her name is just so good sounding,” Gates enthused. “Different people on that list have affected us all in many different ways. Tonight was really about artists. Museums need artists. The fact that Hirshhorn understands the value of artists is really awesome.”
Painter Sean Scully, one of the evening’s honorees, had a less emotional read on the whole thing: “It’s certainly better to be remembered than to be ignored,” he said with a laugh.
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