Space Odysseys

Imagining the future for two great institutions: Dia and the New Museum

Four weeks ago, I wrote a piece arguing that the Whitney Museum should, in effect, divide and conquer. Rather than building a trophy expansion to its uptown flagship, I said the Whitney should devote its great Marcel Breuer flagship to art before 1990 and renovate a gigantic old building on Manhattan's far West Side dedicating it to art since 1990 (shows like the biennial could still take place uptown). Could it be that the Whitney was listening? Two weeks ago the museum announced that it is "thinking about" a move like this. If this bifurcation took place on a large enough scale—adding over100,000 square feet of downtown exhibition space—everyone associated with this daring move would be considered a hero, and the entire art world would line Tenth Avenue to cheer the Whitney as it moved into its downtown building.

Until then, let's look at the possible futures of two other crucial New York art institutions, Dia and the New Museum.

On October 25, the Dia Center for the Arts announced it was pulling out of a possible plan to renovate a building at Washington and Gansevoort streets in the West Village. It was estimated that this two-story structure could have been converted into approximately 45,000 square feet of exhibition space for around $55 million; the city was reportedly prepared to contribute $8 million to the project. When Dia said no, the Whitney approached the city about the building, or maybe the city approached the Whitney. Either way, the art world is now presented with a huge win-lose situation.

The "win" could be the Whitney's if it pulls off this bifurcation. The "lose" is unfortunately all about Dia. Committed to challenging, regularly changing long-term exhibitions of cutting-edge contemporary art, Dia is—or was—an extraordinarily important New York institution. It is heartbreaking, if not reprehensible, therefore, that its trustees, former director, and all those associated with Dia allowed it to vacate its tremendous 22nd Street building, which anchored Chelsea for almost 20 years and which almost any organization of its size would be thrilled to have despite whatever repairs, upgrades, and renovations were needed.

In February 2004, Art in Americareported that Dia announced it was "temporarily closing the 22nd Street location while the building undergoes upgrades and renovations" but that it was "scheduled to open in 2006." This has not happened. At a posh Dia fundraiser three weeks ago every person I spoke to expressed extreme dismay about there being no space in New York City. The only thing said in a dinner speech by a spokesperson was that Dia "is committed to having a presence in New York City." That's too tepid an answer to explain this situation. For only $30 million Dia could have kept its 22nd Street building. Instead it built Beacon and abandoned Manhattan. There is no Dia New York City; there hasn't been one for almost three years;in all likelihood there won't be another permanent one for five years or more. That's as inexcusable as it is lamentable.

Dia has always been a very special case. It was one of the first institutions to implement Donald Judd's ideas about renovating old industrial spaces for art. Dia has the credibility and pockets to do anything it wants, including renovating an even older building or using other types of structures including schools, megastores, office buildings, town halls, etc. It could even move back into its 22nd Street space. Regardless, we need Dia, and Dia needs to do something decisive soon, even if it's only to open a temporary space.

If Dia doesn't reclaim 22nd Street (which I'm sure it won't), a few suggestions for what might be done with Dia's old space. The American Folk Art Museum, potentially one of the best art institutions anywhere, is currently imprisoned in its new, terrible for art, 53 rd Street building. Twenty-Second Street would be great for it, and it would be great for 22nd Street. Or let's conduct a mass intervention with the confused Drawing Center and shout in unison, "Snap out of it, Drawing Center. Stop talking about opening at ground zero or the South Street Seaport, where you'll basically become a tourist attraction." I know the Studio Museum is rooted in Harlem, but one can only imagine the sparks that would fly from a Thelma Golden-run Chelsea extension. Or Artists Space could think about 22nd Street, or Matthew Higgs could work wonders here for White Columns.

As for the New Museum, we still don't know what this wonderfully renegade institution will be in its handsome, still-under-construction, $50 million, 60,000-square-foot, seven-story building on the Bowery. I love this museum, even if my inner worrywart sometimes frets that the New Museum was the one institution that could really have gone for it and shocked everyone by forgoing this construction project and instead renovating a gigantic 300,000- to 400,000-square-foot warehouse on the Brooklyn riverfront. I imagine that not only would the city have given money to the project, it might have built a footbridge across the East River to its door.

Pipe dreams aside, the New Museum could be great where it is, especially with the outstanding staff of curators assembled by director Lisa Phillips, herself committed to "completely rethinking the museum." That leaves one thing: There's talk the New Museum wants to become a "collecting institution," that it wants to start buying art. My unsolicited advice is this: Whatever you do, New Museum, don't start collecting art. You've got your hands full just trying to mount relevant exhibitions of cutting-edge contemporary art. If you do anything, take the money buying art would involve, find three or four grungy ground-floor loft spaces in your new neighborhood, and establish a few New Museum test sites and satellites there. Open a couple of nearby storefronts for six-month shows; let outside curators and artists have their hand in these spaces. All this would make you hardcore, underground, and mainstream at the same time. If it all fails, at least you'll fail flamboyantly.

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