Sometimes under-the-radar lives do more to illuminate a particular moment than the brightest blips on the scope. Such is the case with James T. Demetrion, the director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden for sixteen years beginning in 1985, who died in Washington, D.C., a few days after Thanksgiving last year, at the age of ninety.

In his time, Demetrion was not an art world celebrity. This had nothing to do with his abilities and everything to do with his personality. Down-to-earth, self-deprecating, and partial to loud neckties, Demetrion was the antithesis of the suave, smooth-talking director out of central casting—a man more comfortable operating behind the scenes than working a room.

Yet reflecting on his career from the vantage point of today, it seems clear that he was, if not the last, then very nearly the last of a breed that emerged in this country between the two World Wars and that is exemplified by moma’s founding director, Alfred H. Barr, Jr.: the scholar-connoisseur who had art in his bones, and for whom the shaping of an institution was a kind of creative act.

Demetrion was born in 1930 in Ohio, the son of Greek immigrants. He came to art relatively late, while stationed in Europe with the U.S. Army in the early 1950s after college. He returned to Europe a little later on a Fulbright scholarship for graduate study on the work of Egon Schiele. But he never completed any advanced degrees.

He came to the Hirshhorn after sixteen years running the Des Moines Art Center, succeeding Abram Lerner, the founding director and Joseph H. Hirshhorn’s longtime curator. Though it had been open as a public museum of European and American modern art of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries for just over a decade, the Hirshorn still bore the stamp of a private collection, its holdings large, eclectic, and unbalanced. The museum, housed in Gordon Bunshaft’s Brutalist donut, had opened in October 1974 with about six thousand objects. (A bequest after Hirshhorn’s death in 1981 boosted that number to around twelve thousand.) The collection included pre-Columbian art, Persian miniatures, Benin bronzes, and Eskimo carvings. As well as acquiring across a broad front, Hirshhorn collected certain artists in depth, among them Henry Moore, David Smith, Elie Nadelman, and even Thomas Eakins.

The Hirshhorn was famous for its outstanding collection of modern sculpture, Rodin to around the mid-twentieth century. Outside of moma there was nothing like it—Raymond Nasher’s collection wouldn’t go public until 2003. Things were a little rougher around the edges with the paintings. Reviewing the inaugural installation for The New York Times, Hilton Kramer found that outside the Eakins holdings, the nineteenth-century American paintings “do not add up to a significant museum survey”; early American modernism “is one of the most viable sections”; but Abstract Expressionism was “unevenly represented,” with only a few Gorkys, de Koonings, and Stills. The 1960s, however—“op, pop, color-field painting, the realist revival, and much else”—were extremely well accounted for, though “as we come closer and closer to the present day, the effort to include one of everything, whether good, bad, or indifferent, is unmistakable and dreary.”

The “present day”—the mid-1970s—was pretty much where the collection stopped. Demetrion was brought in to tidy things up—to give the collection more coherence and shape while hewing to Hirshhorn’s modernist vision—and to turn it into a living museum by collecting contemporary art. In this latter effort he was the beneficiary of one final Hirshhorn gift: the freedom to sell anything to acquire more art. So he went to work.

In the press release announcing Demetrion’s death, the current Hirshhorn director, Melissa Chiu, true to the zeitgeist, praised him for having “diversified” the collection. And it’s true that he acquired work by artists such as David Hammons, Glenn Ligon, Ana Mendieta, Nam June Paik, and Eva Hesse. But that blinkered view shortchanges Demetrion’s singular talent as an acquisitor, which combined both breadth of vision and sharp focus. You get a more accurate picture of his accomplishments from a May 1986 Washington Post story. In just his first eighteen months as director, it said, Demetrion acquired a 1985 Frank Stella relief; a Robert Irwin disk; sculptures by Deborah Butterfield, Claes Oldenburg, Ed and Nancy Kienholz, Isamu Noguchi, Robert Arneson, Sol LeWitt, and H. C. Westermann; and paintings by Jean Dubuffet, Richard Diebenkorn, William T. Wiley, Leon Golub, and Anselm Kiefer. By the time he retired in 2001, Demetrion had sold or traded 2,901 objects and acquired more than three hundred works. (“We may be the only modern art museum in the world whose collection has decreased,” he had wryly observed to the Post two years earlier.) He was lucky in his timing—the market in the ’80s was red hot, so things sold well. For example, that same 1986 Washington Post story reported that Henry Moore’s Seated Woman (1956–57), the lesser of two bronze casts of the work the museum owned, had sold for $990,000, “far above the estimated $550 to $750,000.” By the time he retired, Demetrion had parlayed an annual $150,000 acquisitions budget into a $30 million endowment fund for purchases.

It’s a measure of Demetrion’s sober temperament and discerning eye that, given the hype attending the emerging artists of the 1980s—Julian Schnabel, Cindy Sherman, Jeff Koons, et al.—he did not, as did so many of his colleagues, leap aboard the bandwagon. Those three didn’t enter the collection until well into the 1990s, while others, such as David Salle and Robert Longo, have never made the cut.

Something else that distinguished Demetrion’s tenure was that he organized exhibitions: monographic shows on Francis Bacon (1989), Jean Dubuffet (1993), Stanley Spencer (1997), and Clyfford Still (2001). These averaged out to one every four years, a remarkable feat given the demands of his “day job” as director. The Dubuffet show was a revelation to me—I have never forgotten the figure composed of a collage of butterfly wings—and a typical reflection of Demetrion’s independent mind. I had known this artist only from his anodyne late work, exemplified by his Group of Four Trees (1970–72) in New York’s Chase Manhattan Plaza. Demetrion’s show began just after World War II with the artist’s discovery of “art brut”—the work of children and the insane—through which he sought to arrive at a more authentic mode of expression, and stopped in the early 1960s, mercifully short of the late phase. Reviewing the show for the September 1993 issue of this magazine, I wrote,

Dubuffet differs from today’s “transgressive” artists in that his tactics weren’t undertaken solely for their own sake. What invariably surfaces in Dubuffet’s churning aesthetic is a deep humanity. The gnarled figure of a vintner in The Soul of Morvan—a sculpture made out of twisted grape vines and roots—is an expression of aesthetic opportunity, to be sure. It shows Dubuffet working at the extreme end of the found-object aesthetic, “seeing” in the random configuration of natural objects a human figure and doing little more in the way of artistic manipulation than simple assembly. Yet beyond the purely aesthetic aspect of this work one senses an identification of the artist with his subject, a Millet-like admiration for the dignity and difficulty of work on the land. This emotion is present in virtually all of Dubuffet’s work, even the most comic.

I’d never heard a museum director talk like that before, nor have I since.

I got to know Demetrion in the early 1990s when I worked at The Washington Times and so discovered another of his singular characteristics. I was the art critic, but since we were a small staff and there were pages to fill, I doubled as the art feature writer. And so one day my editor assigned me a series of interviews with the city’s art museum directors as they led me on tours of their collections. These yielded good conversations, even memorable ones. J. Carter Brown, at the National Gallery, stunned me by pointing out a painting, an Eakins, he said he had once disliked. I’d never heard a museum director make such an admission and made a point to include it in my story. But it’s Demetrion’s tour that has remained with me across the decades. For one thing, it was anything but the “Greatest Hits” I was expecting. It was personal, even idiosyncratic. Rodin (The Burghers of Calais) and Willem de Kooning (Two Women in the Country) were the only marquee names on the tour. For the rest we looked at works by Giorgio Morandi, Dubuffet, Thomas Hart Benton, and the now undeservedly forgotten Czech Cubist sculptor Otto Gutfreund. But what has really stuck in my mind is Demetrion’s ability to talk about works of art spontaneously, insightfully, and with deep feeling. “I was just astonished at all the color that’s in this work that appears to be basically gray with little touches of violet and yellow and blue,” he said of Morandi’s 1943 Still Life. “This background color—all kinds of pinks and yellows there.” All the others had talked about what their works meant to art history or to their institutions. With Demetrion, the tour was about what they meant to him. I’d never heard a museum director talk like that before, nor have I since.

Sadly, the post-Demetrion Hirshhorn has become a very different place. Where he stood for substance, his two most recent successors (there have been four since he retired) have opted for spectacle. Richard Koshalek took over in 2009 and immediately started planning “The Bubble,” an inflatable event space designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro that would have protruded 150 feet up through the central opening and out one side at ground level like a bubblegum balloon on a rampage. By 2013, delays, escalating costs, and projections of millions in operating losses doomed the project, causing Koshalek to resign. Since succeeding him, Melissa Chiu, like so many of her colleagues, has gone all in on contemporary art. And she has opted for crowd-pleasing extravaganzas like the 2017 retrospective of Yayoi Kusama, a serious artist whom that show Disneyfied. It was such a box-office success that Chiu decided to come back for seconds with another Kusama show last year that was postponed owing to covid-19. And not a single scholarly, historical show has been originated on her watch. On the extracurricular front, for the past two summers Washingtonians have been able to attend the Hirshhorn Ball, hosted on both occasions by a drag queen.

In the wider world of museums, directors no longer organize big shows. They are now more focused on the physical plant—renovating and/or expanding it—than the objects it contains, their removal from art symbolized by the ceo title many have adopted in addition to that of director. Collecting is no longer about connoisseurship but a kind of defensive play—ensuring your institution has a sufficient number of the right sorts of individuals and groups to appease the social media furies.

Then there’s deaccessioning. A fact sheet issued by the Hirshhorn following Demetrion’s death praised his “deft and prescient” approach. How those words resonate! They came little more than a month after the Baltimore Museum of Art was forced to abandon a plan to sell works by Clyfford Still, Andy Warhol, and Brice Marden to raise money to, among other things, “purchase new works by women and artists of color.” In other words, time-tested, irreplaceable paintings were to have been disposed of for work of unknowable long-term significance. And Baltimore is hardly the only museum to have adopted such an ideological, blunt-instrument approach to deaccessioning.

Jim Demetrion was too modest a man ever to have thought of himself this way, but the fact is that he did more than build a great museum collection. He set a standard for the profession—one sorely missed today.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 39 Number 6, on page 78
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