The Dia Art Foundation Returns to its Roots

Known for its monumental installations in off-the-grid locations, a soaring new Manhattan space signals a new era.

Photography by Jason Schmidt

Dia director Jessica Morgan (fifth from right) and board chair Nathalie de Gunzburg (center right, in white), with artists and staff members at Dia Chelsea in New York City. Hair by Dana Boyer using Kevin Aucoin; makeup by Sena Murahashi using MAC cosmetics.

The Dia Art Foundation has historically not suffered from low testosterone levels. The quintessential Dia project is Walter De Maria’s The Lightning Field, which was completed in 1977; it consists of 400 pointed stainless steel poles evenly spaced within a rectangular perimeter that measures one mile by one kilometer, and stands in a remote desert tract of western New Mexico, where visitors are required to spend a night in a log cabin in order to interact with the work. Dia was also one of the original patrons of two ongoing gargantuan land art constructions: Michael Heizer’s minimalist complex City, covering an area of the Nevada desert about the size of the National Mall in D.C.; and James Turrell’s Roden Crater, the transformation of an extinct volcanic cinder cone in northern Arizona into a light-and-space sculpture.

After a two-year absence, Dia is reopening this April in New York’s west Chelsea neighborhood, in a newly renovated 32,500-square-foot headquarters, and the institution is looking much less macho. Over the past six years, under the leadership of director Jessica Morgan and board chair Nathalie de Gunzburg, Dia has hired many more women and young staffers, and extended its two-decade commitment to connecting working artists as mentors with students. Morgan has also added work by 23 artists to the foundation’s collection, bringing the total number represented to 57; 13 of the newcomers are women, including Mary Corse, Roni Horn, Joan Jonas, Dorothea Rockburne, Michelle Stuart, and Anne Truitt. (There were only six female artists on the roster before Morgan came on board.) “Dia does have this incredible reputation for being the bastion of American minimal art,” Morgan explained. “If we bring these other voices and practices in, we can use them to change how this history is viewed.”

James Turrell, Crater’s Eye and East Portal, Roden Crater, 2021.

Instead of trying to encompass the broad expanse of contemporary art, Dia selects artists whose pieces will resonate with the works that define the institution. That mandate was determined by Dia’s founders: Philippa de Menil, an heiress to the Schlumberger oil-drilling equipment fortune; her (now ex-) husband, Heiner Friedrich, a German art dealer; and Helen Winkler, an art historian. When they set up Dia, in 1974, their primary goal was to support minimalist installations and land art excavations that required major funding. For the most part, these endeavors offered scant commercial possibilities to recoup costs and were located in (to put it mildly) out-of-the-way places. But some other Dia projects, like De Maria’s The New York Earth Room—which has been maintained by the foundation since 1977, and, as the name suggests, consists of 250 cubic yards of dirt, filling the space of a SoHo gallery to a depth of 22 inches—were not off the grid; indeed, they were situated in prime Manhattan real estate.

More than 40 years ago, the foundation pioneered the art world’s incursion into Chelsea, seeking warehouse and factory buildings constructed of reinforced concrete that would be able to support the massive artworks of Minimalism, which could be too heavy for the wooden or masonry edifices with cast-iron facades that characterized SoHo and TriBeCa. But in the 1980s, the oil market slumped, and with it de Menil’s Schlumberger holdings. Dia had to sell several Manhattan properties, among them the former New York Mercantile Exchange, a six-story building in TriBeCa that contained the Dream House of composer La Monte Young and light artist Marian Zazeela (currently situated nearby in their loft); another TriBeCa building, on Franklin Street, that housed Dia offices; a building on West 23rd Street that had been intended to showcase Cy Twombly’s work; a performance space for Robert Whitman on West 19th Street (now the Kitchen, a performance-art nonprofit organization); and a onetime mosque on Mercer Street in SoHo. The biggest unloading came later: the four-story Dia Center for the Arts on West 22nd Street in Chelsea, which, from 1987 to 2004, housed the foundation’s main exhibition galleries.

Walter De Maria, The Lightning Field, 1977.

De Maria, The New York Earth Room, 1977.

In the late 1990s, at the instigation of then director Michael Govan and curator Lynne Cooke, Dia redirected its energies away from Manhattan in favor of a new exurban locale big enough to display its outsize collection. In 2003, Dia Beacon opened in a former Nabisco box-printing plant in Beacon, New York, 90 minutes away from the city. Providing vast exhibition spaces totaling 240,000 square feet, Dia Beacon transferred to the greater New York area the spirit of classic Dia projects in the West: It took some effort to get there, each of the artists on display received an enormous amount of space, and in contrast with a typical museum—let alone a commercial gallery—every exhibition stayed up for at least nine months. In the art museum world, that generous allocation of time and space makes Dia unique. “It’s a slow burn,” observed Donna De Salvo, who worked at Dia in the early 1980s and returned in 2019 as senior adjunct curator for special projects. “We’re in a culture that is spitting things out all the time. Dia is different.”

But renouncing its Manhattan showcase carried a cost. “Because we didn’t have a big presence in New York City, people forgot about Dia,” de Gunzburg said. “They thought Dia was Beacon.” That was true even for the woman the board appointed as director in 2015. Although the British-born Morgan had lived in New York in the 1990s—when her then husband was teaching at Hunter College and New York University, and she was roaming as a curator at the MCA Chicago, ICA Boston, and other institutions—she said that when she was first approached about taking the position, she questioned whether Dia could provide the vibrant interaction with art that she was enjoying in London as a curator at Tate. “As far as I knew, Chelsea had closed and Beacon had opened,” she said. “Dia shows in the ’90s had made such an impression on me that I could still map out some of the floor plans. But it seemed to me that Beacon was about permanence. It was not my idea to leave a job where I was in the midst of promoting change to go somewhere to be watching.”

As it happened, Dia Chelsea hadn’t shuttered—it had merely been hibernating. Before Govan departed to run the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, he tried to acquire the site in the Meatpacking District that eventually went to the Whitney Museum. Although he was unable to raise the money for that purchase, in 2011, the foundation acquired a marble fabrication shop on West 22nd Street; it was conveniently situated between two other buildings that Dia already owned. In keeping with Dia’s tradition of unintrusive conversions that preserve the character of industrial spaces, that former marble shop has now been transformed into an exhibition gallery and connected to the building to the west of it; the bigger building on the other side provides ground-floor public spaces, with room for offices and rented commercial floors above. The New York–based firm Architecture Research Office (ARO) designed the renovation, which designated 20,000 square feet for exhibition and performance rooms (which will have free admission) at street level.

The Dia Chelsea space in progress last year.

The inaugural Dia Chelsea show displays commissioned works by Lucy Raven, an artist born in Arizona and living in New York, who has made her reputation by delving into representations of the American West. In the former marble shop, two pairs of gargantuan kinetic light sculptures will move in and out of sync. And next door, a 45-minute black and white film will be projected on continuous loop onto a monumental screen, chronicling the production of ready-mix concrete from pulverized rock in an Idaho plant. Raven credits Dia with being “foundational to my own understanding of conceptual and minimal art, and its relation to the American West.”

Raven’s first formal association with Dia came in 2017, when she delivered a projected image and live music performance piece as part of the foundation’s Artists on Artists Lecture Series. After she was invited to create the inaugural exhibition in the new Chelsea galleries, Raven spent three years in dialogue with curator Alexis Lowry. “This is definitely the biggest sculpture I’ve made,” Raven said of Casters, the moving metal-and-light piece. “That’s the amazing thing about working with Dia. Alexis said to me jokingly, ‘Go big or go home.’ They’ve been so open to letting the idea develop in terms of the scale, but also the time.” Dia fights to counteract the lightning-fast, market-driven trends that have metamorphosed the art world with the explosion of social media. “We work with artists for years and years,” Morgan said. “It’s about giving them space and time to configure what they’re doing.” Reopening in Chelsea will underscore Dia’s singularity. “What does it mean to be a foundation in an environment of galleries?” de Gunzburg asked. “Dia will be even more relevant.”

Although contemporary art museums like to say that their primary function is to act as handmaidens to the production of art, few do it as committedly as Dia does. Even the foundation’s name, the Greek word for “through,” testifies to its commitment as a facilitator, enabling the artists it anoints to create and preserve their work. “You enter Dia and you enter a religion,” de Gunzburg said. With its reopening in Chelsea, the faith once more has a temple right in town.

Lucy Raven, Casters, 2016.

Jessica Morgan in the unfinished Dia Chelsea space in New York City.

Photo assistants: Kyle Knodell, Julia Wilson; fashion assistant: Amir La Sure; hair assistant: Mark Alan Esparza; makeup assistant: Hinako Takagaki. The Lightning Field: John Cliett, the estate of Walter De Maria, courtesy of Dia Art Foundation, New York; Crater’s Eye and East Portal, Roden Crater: James Turrell, courtesy of Pace Gallery; The New York Earth Room: John Cliett, the estate of Walter De Maria, courtesy of Dia Art Foundation, New York; Casters: Damian Griffiths, courtesy of Lucy Raven.