The Dia Comes Home to New York

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The Dia Art Foundation is a unique thing, a non-profit that collects a limited roster of artists in depth, especially Minimalists and Conceptual artists, and gives them the kind of long term exhibition space their work requires. This can get tricky when you’re talking about something like Walter de Maria’s New York Earth Room, a big spanking white room covered in about two feet of soil, an installation they’ve supported for decades in SoHo.

In the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, Dia was a force to be reckoned with, and generally a force for good. In the hubble-bubble of the New York art world, they represented the values of the long duration. But in 2003 they opened a big new exhibition space in a converted Nabisco box factory in Beacon, N.Y., on the banks of the Hudson River about a hour north of New York. Around the same time they also shut down their headquarters in the Chelsea neighborhood of lower Manhattan, where they did changing exhibitions. Beacon is a great place, but gradually Dia faded from view in New York. Now they’re finally coming back.

Roughly three years ago, when she first came on board as the Dia’s new chairwoman, Nathalie de Gunzburg said that her chief priority would be to find a way to bring the Dia back to Manhattan. First she had to deal with some distractions. Having guided the construction of that Beacon facility, Dia’s Director Michael Govan was lured off to become director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. So he was replaced by Jeffrey Weiss, a curator from the National gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. But Weiss departed in less than a year, complaining that he wanted to remain a curator and scholar and not an administrator. To replace Weiss, last year the Dia recruited Philippe Vergne, deputy director of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, who also said that his first priority would be to bring the Dia back to Manhattan.

Apparently he meant it too. On Thursday Dia announced that it will be building a new home in Chelsea, which is now the downtown hotbed of Manhattan art galleries. No architect has been chosen yet, but a Dia press release says the new building will be “a utilitarian space designed for the experience of art”. Vergne, more lyrically, says: “We want to build a ‘dream house’ for artists.”

The Chelsea that Dia is returning to is a different place from the one where it first settled 23 years ago. Now it’s full of powerhouse galleries like Larry Gagosian’s. It’s not that Dia ever held the art market entirely at arm’s length, but of necessity it represented a different set of values. (When you maintain enduring sites like Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, a giant coil of rocks in the Great Salt Lake, what else can you do?) But something about the New York art world has a way of blurring ethical lines. The New Museum, which was founded as a lower Manhattan alternative to entrenched institutions uptown, recently decided it would be a good idea to mount a show dedicated to the collection of one of its trustees, the Greek billionaire Dakis Joannou, with the artist Jeff Koons, who painted the Joannou yacht, providing window dressing as guest curator.

Can Dia make a difference in this environment? Does it want to?