James T. Demetrion, a longtime museum director whose tenure made the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden one of the country’s most important art museums, has died at 90. An obituary released by the Hirshhorn Museum said that Demetrion died on Sunday of complications relating to a stroke.
The Hirshhorn Museum, which opened in 1974, did not have the status it currently does when Demetrion arrived in 1984 as its second director. By the time he stepped down from the top post in 2001, he had helped turn it into a major institution, dramatically growing its collection and cachet.
When Demetrion started as the Hirshhorn’s director, the museum’s acquisition fund was a mere $150,000. When he left, he had grown it to $30 million. The Hirshhorn’s permanent collection was first established through a donation of some 12,000 works from collector Joseph H. Hirshhorn, but Demetrion soon realized that the museum’s collection was lacking in certain areas and he undertook efforts to expand the collection’s purview. In keeping with a contractual stipulation from Hirshhorn’s donation that allowed for deaccessioning, Demetrion sold off a number of works he found to be redundant.
“A museum that begins with a private collection and doesn’t continue to collect becomes a tombstone,” Demetrion told the Washington Post in 1985. He made it his goal to collect the “art of our time.”
Demetrion’s tenure at the Hirshhorn has been widely considered to have been influential. While there, he curated various notable shows—including 1988’s “Russian and Soviet Painting 1900–1930,” as well as ones focused on Clyfford Still and Francis Bacon—and brought in significant gifts. In recognition of his time there, the Hirshhorn hosts an annual lecture series bearing his name.
“He expanded and diversified our world class collection, curated landmark surveys, fostered talents, and reimagined our plaza,” Melissa Chiu, the Hirshhorn’s current director, said in a statement. “His legacy holds a mirror to our mission and Joseph Hirshhorn’s vision. Art is for everyone, so was Jim Demetrion.”
James T. Demetrion was born in 1930 in Middletown, Ohio. An expert in Austrian Expressionism, he attended the University of California, Los Angeles for art history as a graduate student (he left without a degree) and studied the work of Egon Schiele in Vienna while on a Fulbright scholarship.
In 1964, Demetrion got his first institutional job as a curator at the Pasadena Art Museum in California, which, under the auspices of Walter Hopps, became a hotbed of avant-garde activity. When Hopps departed as director in 1966, Demetrion took his post.
Three years later, in 1969, Demetrion was named director of the Des Moines Art Center in Iowa. He took with him the outré sensibility he had cultivated in Pasadena, organizing shows of Schiele and Paul Klee as well as the Iowa iteration of a traveling Giorgio Morandi retrospective. Among the acquisitions he oversaw there was a work by Jasper Johns, which made the Des Moines Art Center the first institution outside New York to own a work by the acclaimed artist. He also oversaw the addition of a Richard Meier–designed building to the museum’s campus.
Jeff Fleming, the current director of the Des Moines Art Center, said in a statement, “Demetrion influenced a generation of Des Moines collectors who have in turn impacted the collections of the Des Moines Art Center through their generosity.”