Contemporary Art

Dia Goes Back To The Future

By Ted Loos

NEW YORK - Dia Art Foundation has a hard-earned reputation for pushing boundaries and paving the way in the New York art world. As Dia prepares to celebrate a milestone birthday, Ted Loos finds an institution that remains firmly planted on the cutting edge.

Director Philippe Vergne at Dia’s new space, pre-renovation, on West 22nd Street in Chelsea. Photograph by Peter Gregoire.

Turning 40 is not easy. And that’s true for arts institutions as well as people. The question naturally arises: Where to go from here.

Dia Art Foundation turns 40 next year, which is shocking to some ears because it was the ground-breaking, consciousness-expanding “Next New Thing” of the 1970s, helping to pioneer conceptual art.

The Dia imprimatur meant that a piece was serious, intellectual and not to be trifled with – it was often a work that required a lot of time to make, and also to appreciate. Hence Dia’s association with unconventional installations such as Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, which it acquired in 1999, and with many artworks by Walter De Maria, whose most famous piece, The Lightning Field, Dia continues to maintain as one of the great icons of American art.

Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty, 1970. Photograph: John Cliett, ©Dia Art Foundation.

Right from the start, Dia acquired and commissioned brainy artists like Dan Flavin and Donald Judd, people who broke with the old order of the art world, and who took it out of the traditional museum box.

And when Dia:Beacon in the Hudson Valley opened in 2003, essentially creating a museum, it did so on such a huge scale (relatively few works spread over 300,000 square feet) and with such unique care that it, too, blazed a new trail.

An aerial view of the museum on its 31 acres on the banks of the Hudson River. Photograph: Michael Govan, ©Dia Art Foundation.

So middle age comes as a particular challenge for Dia, and that challenge falls squarely at the feet of Philippe Vergne, who has been its director for five years. But Vergne, formerly of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, has a plan – or rather, being French and thus slightly more indirect, he has an approach.

“Dia is a little bit like an old-fashioned house,” he says, using a metaphor that is quite a surprise, given the foundation’s cutting-edge reputation. “We’ve got good craftsmanship. We’re renovating, but keeping the ‘bones.’”

The essential question for Dia is: How do you look forward or backward? “We could be an institution devoted to the twelve founding artists of Dia, and maybe a few more from Dia:Beacon,” Vergne says. “Or is Dia an idea? And the idea is: Let’s make sure we can work with the most important artists of our time, and give them the ideal conditions to do extraordinary work.”

Vergne and Dia’s board – which includes artists Brice Marden and Robert Ryman, and collectors Frances Bowes and Howard Rachofsky – have clearly chosen the second option. “I say it’s an idea,” says Vergne. “Dia should grow.”

Gerhard Richter's Six Gray Mirrors No. 884/1-6 on view at Dia:Beacon. Photograph: © 2013 Gerhard Richter.

That growth will happen in a number of ways. First there is the “bricks and mortar” issue, as Vergne calls it. Dia, which long ago closed its original space on West 22nd Street in Chelsea, will be combining a gallery and a garage-like space across the street (and next door to the gallery building which it owns and which houses its administrative offices and public programmes space) into its first New York art-showing space in years, with a kunsthalle-style programme.

It’s a back-to-the-future homecoming. “We contributed to create this neighbourhood,” says Vergne of the days when west Chelsea meant taxi garages and the Roxy, not the centre of the international art world and the High Line.

And given Dia’s far-flung projects, Vergne wants to make sure Dia doesn’t become too diffuse. “It’s great to be an institution thought through as a constellation of projects, but I think a constellation needs something to rotate around,” he says. “Right now, the fact that we don’t have a space here in New York for a programme – we’re kind of centre-less.”

Walter de Maria's The Lightning Field, 1977 is among the groundbreaking installations for which Dia is known. Photograph: George Steinmetz, ©Dia Art Foundation.

Dia board chairman Nathalie de Gunzburg calls New York City “a laboratory of ideas,” adding, “that’s why we need to be there for artists.”

For the design of the new Chelsea project space, expected to break ground next year, Vergne and the Board came up with a surprise choice – Roger Duffy, of the giant architectural firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. Given Dia’s history, one would expect him to pick a couple of architects from a small shop in Brooklyn with some radical ideas. “We want good design, but it was really about finding a partner who understood Dia and would interact almost at an equal level with the curator, and with me, rather than inventing a monument,” says Vergne.

In keeping with Dia’s programme since its founding, a “slow pace” of exhibitions is what will distinguish the new venue, says Vergne. “We try to do things in depth.” It will likely feature one exhibition of an artist’s work for a whole year, or a single object could be on display for that long. The long-term-view approach is what has distinguished the programme at Dia:Beacon, where large pieces by artists such as Michael Heizer, Blinky Palermo and Richard Serra have taken root and will remain for the foreseeable future. It is, says Vergne, a “luxury” to be able to show art that way.

Richard Serra's Union of the Torus and the Sphere, 2001 on view at Dia:Beacon. Photograph: ©Richard Barnes, Courtesy of Dia Art Foundation.

Another major component to the growth plan is beefing up the Dia endowment, which stands now around $55 million; it’s relatively small, given the institution’s history and stature. Dia has a history of relying on a few choice patrons, including its founding families. “When I became chair, Dia didn’t have a full development team,” says de Gunzburg. “Now we’re getting all the tools we need. The idea is to make Dia stronger.”

For Dia, fundraising means an ability to keep on its idiosyncratic path – it was founded to do works that no one else would do. “We can programme with the spirit of independence,” says Vergne. He cites Dia’s big 2013 project, Thomas Hirschhorn’s Gramsci Monument, as a prime example of the way the foundation is staying true to its mission.

Gramsci Monument, a three-month project by artist Thomas Hirschhorn. ©Justin Lane/epa/Corbis.

The monument, a three-month project that qualifies as one of the quirkier and more distinctive public art projects in some time, was an ode to an obscure, left-wing Italian philosopher. It was constructed in the Forest Houses project in the South Bronx, with the help of local residents, largely out of plywood and packing tape.

De Gunzburg says flatly, “No other institution would do the Gramsci Monument project.” And Vergne sees it as a direct continuation of The Lightning Field – “A different generation, different aesthetic, different time-based work, but the philosophy is quite similar. Thomas is going to become one of these legends, one of these icons.”

The older generation of Dia projects shows no signs of slowing down in terms of public interest, either. De Maria’s The New York Earth Room in SoHo, for instance, is more popular than ever before, perhaps because of heightened environmental consciousness.

The Forecourt at Dia:Beacon. Photograph: Michael Govan, ©Dia Art Foundation.

Vergne sees no contradictions in his plan to keep up those seminal works while maintaining two museum-like spaces and commissioning new installations like the Gramsci Monument – it’s full speed ahead on all fronts.

He takes the long view of Dia’s purpose, adding that 1970s-era Dia wasn’t such a break with the past after all. It was merely a twist on a “very old model that Dia inherited from the Renaissance, of creating chapels to present works of art,” he says. “There’s an extremely traditional principal at work.”

The goal, Vergne says, is to focus on the original spirit that brought Dia – the name comes from the Greek word for “through”– into being. As he puts it, “I think it’s the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ that keeps it alive.”

Ted Loos blogs on contemporary art for and writes on art, architecture and wine for a variety of publications, including Vanity Fair, Departures, The New York Times and Vogue.

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