Dia: Beacon

Back in early October, I had a chance to get up to the Hudson Valley, an hour past New York City. Fall was just beginning (and seems to never end this year), with trees turning under the pressure of cold nights and crisp mornings. We stayed in a hard-luck town called Newburgh, across the Hudson River from Beacon. While both sides have rail lines, Beacon has the commuter train to New York City, and so has become an uber-outer suburb, full of Brooklyn expats, nice coffee spots, and farm-to-table restaurants. 

Years ago, in my first trip out west, I went to Donald Judd's sprawling Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas. The lady and I revisited it a few years later in between Chicago and Baltimore. Now, it was time to meet its east-coast cousin, Dia:Beacon. 

 The main hall, with stainless-steel plates by Walter De Maria. 

The main hall, with stainless-steel plates by Walter De Maria. 

Dia was founded in 1974 by Phillipia de Menil, a Texas oil heiress Heiner Freidich, and Helen Winkler. De Menil's parents, John and Dominique, were legendary art patrons. French expats, they made a fortune with Schlumberger Ltd., an oil-services company with worldwide reach. In the mid-nineties, Dominique established the Menil Museum, in Houston, designed by Renzo Piano and seeded with 10,000 objects from their own holdings. 

Phillipa and her siblings all inherited the art bug, and the fortune to back it. She, however, had a different idea; from the beginning, Dia made deep investments in individual artists, instead of collecting finished works. The initial "class" of Dia artists were all sixties minimalist and conceptual artists, mostly men: Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, John Chamberlain Walter De Maria, La Monte Young, and Marian Zazeela. 

On the Dia Foundation website, they state their mission as the following:

"Dia Art Foundation identifies, fosters, and presents those artists who have the potential to change the way we think about art and the world. To achieve this Dia:

- Provides artists with long-term support to realize the transformative potential of their ideas;

- Commits to this support even when the artists’ ideas seem too ambitious or; impractical to be realized within the traditional museum context;

- Honors these artists’ visions by maintaining iconic projects and presenting; single-artist collections of breakthrough works."

 Dan Flavin, one of my favorite artists. 

Dan Flavin, one of my favorite artists. 

In my own limited experience with the higher echelons of the art world, I can attest to how rare the Dia approach is. Art is increasingly a hedge fund-type commodity, an tax-sheltered investment that appreciates better than gold, real estate, or stocks (and is conveniently portable). The Foundation gave artists stipends, studio space, and in some instances money for land, and just let them go. Actual commissions were rare. Many of the artists were young or early mid-career when Dia started fostering them, representing a deep financial and creative risk. What if they never panned out?

One could argue most of them panned out because of they were given the resources to thrive. Even just the attention shown to them -- and Phillipa's connections -- may have been enough to kickstart some of their careers. Over time, Dia picked up a who's who of mid-century conceptualists: we saw pieces by Richard Serra, Sol LeWitt, Joseph Beuys, Gerhard Richter, and Robert Smithson. 

In the late eighties, oil prices were depressed and Phillipa began to pull back her financial support. Her mother stepped in, sold off some real estate and reorganized the board. Debts were paid off, and an endowment was formed that now manages the museum's two main sites, in Beacon and Chelsea, and ten site-specific pieces in New York City and across the western U.S. 

 There were a half-dozen Richard Serra pieces big enough to walk inside of. 

There were a half-dozen Richard Serra pieces big enough to walk inside of. 

Dia:Beacon is a 240,000 S.F. (!!!) former Nabisco box factory set in 31 acres alongside the Hudson River. Great big sawtooth skylights face north, offering a clean, glare-free light. Guards discouraged photography, but I couldn't help myself -- the place made everything look amazing. There were Sol LeWitt instruction drawings; smashed cars by Chamberlain; and Flavin for days, in a space large enough to hold a professional soccer match. All the work had room to be, and breathe -- the monumentality of it was as magnetic as the work itself. After being there, it almost seemed silly that someone might want to cram a sculpture into a little white room somewhere in New York City.

The experience was immersively architectural, where container and contained merged into an mega-form that remain almost indistinguishable in my mind these months later. It's the type of place that makes you want to go out and do something big. I'm glad someone on this planet is still making places large enough to dream. 

 Sol LeWitt instruction drawings.

Sol LeWitt instruction drawings.