From the Archives: Dia:Beacon Opens to the Public, in 2003

Dia:Beacon, Riggio Galleries, Beacon, New York.


Each time the Dia Art Foundation has planned a move or opened a new location, it has been an event. Last month brought news that Dia will expand its headquarters in Chelsea and reclaim a space in SoHo, at 77 Wooster Street. The announcement came almost exactly 15 years after Dia opened its landmark museum in Beacon, New York, which has made the Hudson Valley town an arts destination for day-trippers. To commemorate the space’s 15th anniversary, we’ve republished Barbara Pollack’s report on the opening of Dia:Beacon, which first appeared in the May 2003 issue of ARTnews. Her piece follows in full below. —Alex Greenberger

“Dia on the Hudson”
By Barbara Pollack
May 2003

Renovated to accommodate overscale works that don’t fit into conventional museums, Dia’s new facility in Beacon, New York, shows off a generation of artists who have never been seen at this scale and in such depth

Leave your passport at home. To visit the newest site on the global art map, you have only to board the MetroNorth train at Grand Central Station and take the 90-minute ride up to Beacon, New York, where a huge new museum, housed in a former cookie-box factory, opens its doors on the 18th of this month.

Situated on 31 acres overlooking the Hudson River, Dia Beacon offers 292,000 square feet of gallery space filled with masterpieces of Minimal and Conceptual art by such artists as Richard Serra, Agnes Martin, Joseph Beuys, On Kawara, Dan Flavin, Walter De Maria, Louise Bourgeois, and Hanne Darboven, many of which have never been seen in their entirety. Dia director Michael Govan is banking on the collection to attract anticipated crowds of 50,000 to 60,000 visitors a year. Many others are hoping that Dia Beacon will give a much-needed boost to the Hudson Valley’s depressed economy.

“The job of finding a permanent home for Dia’s permanent collection was handed to me by my predecessor, Charles Wright, when I came on board in 1994,” says Govan, 39, who joined Dia after six years as deputy director of the Guggenheim Museum. A protégé of Guggenheim director Thomas Krens since his student days at Williams College, where he acquired a degree in art history and studio art in 1985, Govan was well prepared for the task of developing a Guggenheim-style museum “satellite” for the Dia Center for the Arts.

The permanent collection was assembled in the 1970s by Dia founders Philippa de Menil and Heiner Friedrich, who often commissioned works directly from artists or supported their more experimental projects on a long-term basis. Many of the works, however, turned out to be either too large or too extensive to be shown even at Dia’s now central location in Chelsea, which opened in 1987. As a result, the collection remained in storage in several warehouses around New York City and at the Menil Foundation in Houston, out of public view, for more than two decades.

Govan’s original plan was to acquire a building down the block from Dia’s home on West 22nd Street, which would have joined a constellation of off-site exhibition spaces that includes Walter De Maria’s Earth Room in SoHo and the Dan Flavin Art Institute in Bridgehampton, Long Island. But the proposal was delayed as Dia went through a series of upheavals in the mid-1990s—including acrimonious board disputes and ambitions fund-raising projects—to balance the budget. By the time Govan was ready to move on the plan, the Chelsea real estate market had boomed and the nearby building was no longer available.

Now, standing in the expansive entryway of Dia Beacon, Govan says that his misfortune was serendipitous. Just as Krens discovered the future site of MASS MoCA on a now legendary motorcycle trip, Govan spotted the Beacon building—an abandoned Nabisco plant—from the sky, while piloting a light airplane up the Hudson in the fall of 1997. Built in 1929, the Nabisco factory was a classic example of American modernist architecture that offered a vast interior space, lit entirely by an accordion-style skylight composed of more than 34,000 square feet of glass. By March 1998 Dia had acquired the building, which was donated by its owner, International Paper Corporation, and received a $2 million grant toward its renovation from New York governor George Pataki.

Five years and $25 million later, Govan will open Dia Beacon on budget—and on schedule. With 20 gallery spaces, each devoted to the work of a single artist, the former factory looks as if it had been built to house this unique collection. John Chamberlain’s Privet (1997), standing amid 30 of his crushed-car sculptures, is a forest of towering vertical forms that echo the trees visible through the window wall overlooking the Hudson. Andy Warhol’s complete “Shadow” series—102 large canvases—can be seen in another gallery. As felicitous as this all seems, the renovation barely changed the original scale and design of the structure; most of the galleries are lit only by the skylight, and all additional lighting, heating, climate control, and alarm systems are kept hidden from view. (In fact, at Dia’s behest, the structure has been added to the National Registry of Historical Buildings.) The overall plan itself approaches a work of art, created as a collaboration between OpenOffice architects and the artist Robert Irwin, who has contributed landscaping for the parking lot and adjoining grounds.

Dia has always championed artists whose work challenges conventional notions of scale, such as Robert Smithson, whose 1970 earthwork in Utah, Spiral Jetty, it now owns, and James Turrell, whose ongoing earthwork in a dormant volcano, Roden Crater, it has supported. At least two of the works on view at Dia Beacon were so massive that they had to be installed even before construction was completed. Richard Serra’s three Torqued Ellipses (1995–96), plus his sculpture Torqued Spiral (2000), now fit snugly within the red-brick loading depot where trains once pulled in to pick up cartons of cookies. Michael Heizer’s North, East, South, West (1967), four geometric-shaped funnels that burrow 20 feet into the ground, were put in place before the floor was completed.

Even the works that were moved into place more recently look as if they were site specific. A set of Donald Judd’s plywood boxes come to life in the play of light flooding in through huge windows; the neon lights of Dan Flavin’s Tatlin Monuments (1964) zigzag through a wall, installed as specified by the artist before his death in 1996. Other works requiring more controlled lighting—such as Robert Ryman’s two large-scale series, Vector (1975–97) and Hanne Darboven’s immense Kulturgeschichte (1980–83), a cultural and personal history made of 1,589 panels—have been given interior spaces. “This generation of artists who emerged in the 1960s and 1970s has never been properly seen at this scale and depth,” says Govan. “Though the work is not necessarily site specific, it requires complete attention to installation and scale.”

While Govan has been paying attention to details within the building, he has also been concerned with relationships in the surrounding community. He has worked closely with Beacon’s mayor, Clara Gould; and Amy Weisser, assistant director of Dia:Beacon, has launched an arts-education program with local schools, collaborating with Beacon’s school superintendent, Lloyd Jaeger. “Really, it’s a very promising future,” states Mayor Gould, who has watched as her town of 13,800 residents has been transformed from one of many economically depressed, post-industrial towns along the Hudson River into a burgeoning arts center in less than three years.

In addition to Dia, Scenic Hudson, a nonprofit environmental organization, has acquired 70 acres of waterfront property adjacent to Dia to develop as a public park and $28 million mixed-use recreation area. The Minetta Brook Foundation, also working closely with Dia and Scenic Hudson, has commissioned Constance de Jong and George Trakas to make works that will be a permanent part of the Beacon waterfront.

Now others are joining the rush. New York real estate developer and arts patron William Ehrlich has acquired more than half the real estate in Beacon and has proposed the creation of four major new visual- and performing-arts facilities, under the rubric of the Beacon Cultural Project. He has hired former museum director David Ross (of the Whitney Museum and SFMOMA) to oversee the projects. Chelsea dealer Max Protetch recently announced that he is opening a public sculpture park in Beacon. If all of these plans move forward, the town will soon be home not only to Dia Beacon but also to two hotels, a new marina, a conference center and spa, and a performing-arts center, as well as several smaller museums and alternative spaces. These facilities make it a destination spot for weekenders from New York City.

Govan withholds judgment on these other projects. Looking back on his experience in Chelsea, he understands that real estate development may be an inevitable consequence of artistic activity. Yet, in the end, he remains philosophical. “These artists went outside museum structures and wanted to change the way we look at space and land,” he says. Surveying all the projects happening in Beacon, he concludes, “It has just taken time for institutions to catch up with their vision.”

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