The Hirshhorn Museum’s founding donor, Joseph H. Hirshhorn (1899–1981), a financier, philanthropist, and well-known collector of modern art. Joseph was the twelfth of thirteen children immigrated to New York from Latvia, when he was eight years old with his widowed mother and her children.
During the 1960s, a museum initially endowed with the permanent art collection of Joseph H. Hirshhorn, a conception of a national museum of contemporary and modern art and currently focused on the post–World War II period, with particular emphasis on art made during the last 50 years.
The Hirshhorn building, itself is an attraction as anything inside, described as an enormous spacecraft parked on the National Mall. The building is essentially an open cylinder elevated by four colossal “legs”, and a large fountain occupying the central courtyard. The Smithsonian staff reportedly told the architectural firm, if they did not provide a striking contrast to everything in the city, then it would be unacceptable for housing a Smithsonian modern art collection.
During a 1962 sculpture show, at New York’s Guggenheim Museum, the event activated awareness by the international art community to the considerable number of pieces in Hirshhorn’s collection. Word of his sizable collection of modern and contemporary paintings spread to art institutions in Italy, Israel, Canada, California, and New York all vied for his collection. Lady Bird Johnson, the first lady, with the Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley together campaigned for the new museum on the National Mall. The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden has been open to the public since 1974.
Most of the funding was federal, but Joseph Hirshhorn later contributed one-million dollars toward the construction, and the groundbreaking was in 1969. Abram Lerner was the founding Director, he oversaw research, and a major installation of more than 6,000 items received such as paintings, sculptures, drawings, and mixed pieces established in his namesake museum on the National Mall. The museum and garden complex provides 60,000 square feet of exhibition space inside and nearly four acres outside in its two-level Sculpture Garden and plaza.
Joseph H. Hirshhorn may be most well known as a collector of nineteenth and twentieth-century sculpture. He acquired major works by pioneers such as Auguste Rodin and Constantine Brancusi, as well as innovative contemporaries, including Alexander Calder, Henry Moore, and Alberto Giacometti.
Developing friendships with these artists, by visiting their studios and buying work directly from the artist. Hirshhorn remained a vigorous collector and patron of the arts until his death in 1981. His bequest subsequently to the museum nearly doubled the size of the collection with more than 12,000 objects.
Source: Hirshhorn Museum website page with the history information link.