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Dia Art Foundation Plans an Upscale Move

Published: May 9, 2005

Since the Dia Art Foundation was created in 1974, it has been something of a pioneer. More than a decade before fashionable contemporary art galleries moved into Chelsea, Dia operated a museum space there. Now it has its eye on a derelict building in the next hot neighborhood: the meatpacking district.

The New York Times

The proposed Dia gallery would be used for temporary exhibits.

Dia plans to move from its two spaces on West 22nd Street to 820 Washington Street, at Gansevoort Street. The new site is at the entrance to the High Line, the abandoned railway line 30 feet above the blocks between 10th and 11th Avenues, from Gansevoort Street to 34th Street, which is about to become a park with the help of $50.7 million in city money.

The West Side above 16th Street, along the High Line, is poised for upscale development. The city is rezoning the area from an industrial district to one that includes residential and commercial spaces.

The city owns 820 Washington Street and is supporting Dia's proposed museum, which must go through a public review and be approved by the city. Plans call for possibly demolishing the existing structure, an old meatpacking facility now in disrepair, and building a simple two-story museum with 45,000 square feet of gallery space on two floors. Dia's proposal includes provisions to expand the Gansevoort Meat Market on the West Street side of the building, said Michael Govan, director of Dia.

Kate D. Levin, the city's cultural affairs commissioner, said: "It's a bet on the future. Dia has been a visionary not just in creating museums, but in creating neighborhoods. Having the museum at the entrance to the High Line is a wonderful fit, a way to help preserve the character of that community."

If the project, with an estimated cost of $55 million, goes through, Dia would use the new Manhattan space for temporary exhibitions. It has no plans to change the nature of its exhibitions, which tend to be long-term single-artist shows, often of commissioned works. Its permanent collection - about 700 works by artists who emerged in the 1960's and 70's - is housed in Dia:Beacon, a $50 million museum that opened two years ago in an abandoned 1929 Nabisco box factory overlooking the Hudson River in Beacon, N.Y.

Dia's existing buildings in Chelsea have not functioned efficiently as attendance has risen over the last decade. In 1987, when Dia opened its main space, a four-story renovated warehouse at 548 West 22nd Street, it attracted about 16,000 to 17,000 visitors a year. Before it closed for renovations in February 2004, attendance had grown to about 60,000.

Cramped spaces have been just part of its problem. Since the building has no air-conditioning, it has been forced to close in summer. Mr. Govan estimated that it would cost at least $8 million just to get the building up to code.

The other building, a former garage at 545 West 22nd Street, has worked well for large-scale installations. "But art has changed over the past 15 years," Mr. Govan said. "More recent works involve the heavy use of technology, video and sound, which the building has never adapted to."

If plans for the new location go through, Dia is considering either selling or leasing its Chelsea buildings, although Mr. Govan said no decision had been made.

In true Dia style, Mr. Govan said he envisioned the new site in much the same spirit as Dia:Beacon: a series of simple, raw spaces with skylights rather than a fancy architect-designed monument. The main galleries would extend over part of the Gansevoort Meat Market, contiguous with and at the same level as the High Line.

"You will be able to enter the main level of the museum from the High Line," Mr. Govan said. "We like the association with the meat markets. As long as they are there, our light is protected."

Since there are only low buildings to the north and nothing to the west except the Hudson River, Mr. Govan added, the new site will have an extraordinary expanse of light that will be captured with a vast system of north-facing skylights, a signature element of the Beacon location. "I see these as two factorylike museums on the Hudson," he said.

In addition to its museums in Manhattan and Beacon, Dia runs several site-specific art installations, including three works by Walter De Maria: "New York Earth Room" and "Broken Kilometer," both in Manhattan, and "The Lightning Field," in New Mexico; and the Dan Flavin Art Institute in Bridgehampton, N.Y. Dia also helped found the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh and the Cy Twombly Gallery in Houston.

So far, Mr. Govan said, about half of the necessary money has been committed, contingent on the project's approval. He estimated that the new museum would cost about $35 million to build and that Dia would need $20 million for an endowment to run it.

Mr. Govan said that if all goes as planned, he hopes the new museum will open as early as 2007 in conjunction with the first phase of the opening of the High Line Park.

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