For hundreds of years the art world has been a limited space for women in every way you could imagine. In many cultures around the world the arts were reserved for men due to socio-economic statuses and education—and even if women did have these things their art was still undervalued because the quality was seen as beneath that of men. When Europe began colonising other countries, gender was no longer the only factor in devaluing art. Culture became another factor in ways the art world could discriminate and decide what was valuable and what wasn’t. Then things started to change in the 1900’s with modern art, and women and people of color began to receive the recognition they so greatly deserved. Melissa Chiu, the museum director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture garden, was one of the people to help bring about this revolution.
Melissa Chiu posing in the Obliteration Room by Yayoi Kusama at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C. (2017).
Chiu started working in galleries as an independent curator after graduating with a Masters in Arts Administration from the University of New South Wales. In the beginning of her career she decided to focus solely on contemporary art, as she felt that she could actually create meaningful exhibitions with these artists. Though it wasn’t until 1996 that she was actually able to collaborate with a group of filmmakers and artists to establish a gallery of her own focused on art from the Asian-Pacific. The A4 Center for Contemporary Art was later named a Heritage Center for Sydney’s Chinatown district in 2001, and from there she moved to create initiatives for Asian art all over the world. One of Chiu’s most notable positions was museum director of the Asia Society in New York where she headed a number of projects such as launching a complementary collection for the Rockefeller Center for the Contemporary Arts.
Melissa Chiu at the Hirshhorn Museum Gallery in Washington, D.C. (2019).
All of Chiu’s work thus far has been focused on uplifting artists and helping to break the glass ceiling that is so present in the art world—especially so in the world of contemporary art. Although she is most known for this work, we think that it is necessary to commemorate her as a trailblazer in another way. Becoming a curator is a challenging feat, but becoming a museum director is something remarkable. Throughout the 1900’s women began to be more accepted into art spaces, though it wasn’t until the 1970’s that women started to be promoted to higher positions within museum hierarchies. Chiu was one of these women who helped bring more women to the forefront of the museum industry. Needless to say, she has broken the glass ceiling in more ways than one.
If you would like to know more about Melissa Chiu and her projects, please visit: https://hirshhorn.si.edu/explore/melissa-chiu-bio/ . We hope that you find her work just as groundbreaking as we did.