GAZING at a derelict shell of a building in the meatpacking district of Manhattan one recent rainy morning, Michael Govan was imagining a not-so-distant future when the Dia Art Foundation will make its home there.
"I'm a light fanatic," Mr. Govan, the foundation's director, said. "We plan to keep the structure low so that it will have open views to the north and light from the Hudson River on the west." He gestured from underneath his umbrella. "Most of the galleries will have north-facing skylights."
It is hard to picture a distinguished exhibition space in this booming neighborhood, a strange mix of trendy nightclubs, expensive boutiques and industrial meat lockers. But for Dia, that is the dream - one it hopes to realize in as little as two years at an estimated cost of $33 million.
The dream did not start that way. Eighteen months ago, Dia closed its two exhibition spaces on the westernmost block of West 22nd Street in Chelsea for a full-scale renovation to address chronic problems like leaky roofs, an antiquated elevator and a lack of air-conditioning. But once the project got under way, foundation officials realized that it would cost upward of $8 million to make the buildings - a four-story warehouse and a converted garage across the street - work. Even then, they say, neither would have afforded the kind of vast open space Dia wanted.
So from Harlem to the financial district, Mr. Govan began scouring Manhattan in search of a sprawling new home. Then he heard about 820 Washington Street, just a stone's throw from the High Line, an abandoned elevated railway overgrown by weeds and wild shrubbery.
That melancholic landscape, which the city was re-envisioning as an elongated park, was crucial to Dia's decision to relocate in the meatpacking district. Plans now call for the foundation's galleries to be contiguous and level with the park, allowing visitors to gaze upon lush greenery while soaking up contemporary art.
In an age when name-brand architects are building museums around the world that are as much a statement as the art they house, Dia's plan for its new space seems oddly modest. Rather than hire a celebrity architect, Dia enlisted Roger Duffy, a partner at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill who has worked on other projects with the foundation and is known for his low-key designs.
If the city, which owns the site, approves Dia's design plans, the building will be a plain two-story structure with 34,000 square feet of gallery space spread over two floors. Meat markets will operate at ground level on its west side.
The new building's understated look is in keeping with the pioneering spirit and style of Dia, which opened in Chelsea in 1987, more than a decade before contemporary art galleries began their stampede into the neighborhood. This move will make it the only cultural institution amid the 1.5 miles of the High Line, one whose visitors can enter it directly from the park.
But Dia officials don't see this as much of a gamble.
"We brought people to Chelsea in the beginning," recalled Lynne Cooke, Dia's curator. "Then Chelsea grew up around us." She predicts that the new site will attract more visitors, both those who now frequent Chelsea's art galleries and people trooping along the 22-block High Line, which will run all the way north to the 30's.
After all, Dia has pulled off more improbable feats. Two years ago, when it opened a 31-acre outpost along the Hudson River in Beacon, N.Y., many in the museum world doubted that it would draw much of an audience. Today, that giant, sky-lighted museum, with 250,000 square feet of gallery space devoted to installations of works by artists who emerged in the 1960's and 70's, attracts almost 100,000 visitors a year, more than twice the number Dia ever drew in Chelsea.
WHILE large-scale museum projects tend to cause a neighborhood uproar as soon as they are announced, Dia has met with no such resistance since it publicized its Washington Street plans in May.
Neighborhood advocates are quick to explain why. One of the community's biggest fears, said Jo Hamilton, co-chairwoman and co-founder of the group Save Gansevoort Market, is being overwhelmed by too much night life. "In 2001 and 2002 we fought the Jean Nouvel residential tower," she recalled, referring to a proposal for an apartment building of more than 30 stories that was scaled back and later abandoned. "Back then, we discussed the beginnings of a 24-hour neighborhood. There are something like 44 liquor licenses within 400 square feet."
"So to bring in Dia makes it a more rounded neighborhood, helping to anchor it in a good way," she said.
A longtime protégé and former deputy of Thomas Krens, the maverick director of the Guggenheim Museum and its far-flung satellites, Mr. Govan is accustomed to negotiating with neighborhoods, from the Upper East Side to SoHo to the Basque city of Bilbao.
Yet Dia could well be described as the art world's un-Guggenheim. Both institutions are developing a network of spaces; both embrace contemporary art. But while Mr. Krens has pursued outposts around the world designed by big-name architects like Enrique Norten and Frank Gehry, Mr. Govan is fashioning a network of spaces closer to home that are as unobtrusive as possible.
"It's the inside that counts," he said.
And while Mr. Krens routinely shuttles exhibitions and collections from one Guggenheim to the next, from Manhattan to Bilbao to Berlin to St. Petersburg, Dia prefers that each of its spaces foster its own distinct artistic program. Like its Chelsea spaces, Dia's Washington Street galleries will feature site-specific installations by contemporary artists that will stay a minimum of six months.
In addition to its Beacon outpost, the foundation also oversees site-specific art installations like Walter De Maria's "New York Earth Room" and "Broken Kilometer" in Manhattan and "Lightning Field" in New Mexico; and with support from the Lannon Foundation, Michael Heizer's "City Project" in Nevada and Robert Smithson's "Spiral Jetty" earth sculpture in Utah. Dia also oversees the Dan Flavin Art Institute in Bridgehampton, N.Y., and works closely with Donald Judd's Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Tex., the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh and the Cy Twombly Gallery in Houston.
Created in 1974, Dia was never meant to be a conventional art institution. Its founders - the German art dealer Heiner Friedrich; his wife, the Houston arts patron Philippa de Menil; and Helen Winkler, a Houston art historian - simply bought works by artists they loved, like Flavin, Judd, Mr. de Maria, Joseph Beuys, Warhol, Mr. Twombly, John Chamberlain and Fred Sandback.
The foundation has carried on in the same tradition, focusing on specific artists who took off in the 60's and 70's and who revel in large scale. It has added major sculptures by Richard Serra, Judd and Mr. Heizer; it commissioned a series of eight paintings by Agnes Martin before her death last year. In Beacon, it opened three galleries of works by Robert Ryman dating from 1958 to 2003.
Not everyone agrees that this focus is good. Michael Rips, a writer and lawyer who provided pro bono counsel to Dia in the late 1990's, described the foundation as "a difficult place to get involved if you feel you want to influence the direction of the collection."
"Their focus relative to other museums is rather narrow," he said. "That structural limitation has an effect on who they are able to convince to go on the board and how long they are willing to remain on the board."
In 1996, the foundation's chairman, Ashton Hawkins, resigned, and nearly half of the trustees followed him, citing a loss of confidence in Mr. Govan. The departures coincided with the start of a $12 million fund-raising campaign to establish a permanent endowment to erase Dia's $750,000 deficit and provide operating funds. Since then, Mr. Govan has cultivated a new generation of board members and has raised about $10 million each year.
Recently the board has expanded to include some of today's new contemporary-art collectors and philanthropists, like James M. Allwin, president of AetosCapital, a Manhattan investment firm; Timothy Mott, a founder of Electronic Arts, the video game company; Bradford J. Race, a lawyer who was the former chief of staff for Gov. George E. Pataki; and the Manhattan collector Nathalie de Gunzburg. So far Dia has raised more than half the $55 million it needs to build its new space and to form the separate endowment for Manhattan programming. The biggest benefactor by far has been Leonard Riggio, chairman of Barnes & Noble, who has been Dia's chairman since 1998. He donated some $30 million toward the Beacon site and over the years has helped finance such acquisitions as "Torqued Ellipses," three monumental steel sculptures by Richard Serra.
Mr. Govan, for his part, does not see Dia's mission as limiting. "Our program in New York is all about commissioning contemporary art," he countered, and "it hasn't been hard attracting board members."
What has been difficult, he said, is securing corporate sponsorship for Dia's programs. "We don't travel shows," he explained. "Nor do we do theme or group exhibitions, which is what most corporate sponsors want these days."
Given Dia's maverick status, Mr. Govan bristles at any suggestion that crowds or expansion is the foundation's overriding priority. "As an institution, we've always had the same three-part plan," he said. "The first was to put the permanent collection on view and grow it. Then, to complete and provide public access to projects out west. And finally, to continue what we have done in Chelsea."
The decision to abandon Chelsea was not easy, Dia officials say. It was the success of Beacon, with its sprawling, naturally lighted galleries and enthusiastic visitors, that opened their eyes. Over time, the reality of what Dia had achieved there made the limitations of the Chelsea buildings seem "even more glaring," said Ann Tenenbaum, Dia's vice chairman.
The flow within its main space, a four-story renovated warehouse, was too awkward to accommodate its 60,000 annual visitors. The former garage across the street could not easily be adapted for screening big video and sound works. "As the nature of art changes, we have to be able to change, too," Mr. Govan said.
Fleetingly, Dia's board considered giving up New York altogether, he noted. "But we'd miss the pulse of the city," he said. "The artists feed off each other."
And when Mr. Govan found the space on Washington Street, he said, it felt right. For one thing, the Beacon and the meatpacking-district site would be symbolically linked. "There's a nice poetry to the fact that the rail and the river connect these two spaces that once connected them in their industrial past," Mr. Govan said.
Ms. Tenenbaum said that Mr. Govan's proposal provoked lively discussion among the board members, but that nobody opposed it. "Everyone loved the idea of being in a different neighborhood," she said. "We like being pioneers."
At the moment, Dia hasn't decided whether to sell the Chelsea buildings, which Mr. Govan estimates are worth about $20 million, or lease them. But those assets could provide a cushion, enabling the foundation to add to its endowment or expand its programs' support. Mr. Govan speculated that the buildings' value could be harnessed to finance a separate endowment for the programs in its new space.
Meanwhile, the foundation is conducting feasibility studies on an expansion of the Beacon site, home to its permanent collection. Although the galleries there are unusually large, some works cannot be displayed, in some cases because of the placement of the building's structural columns. Dia envisions the creation of 70,000 square feet of additional exhibition space at Beacon within a series of pavilions designed by Peter Zumthor, a Swiss architect. That way it could exhibit, say, Mr. de Maria's "360° I Ching," (1981), an installation of 64 elements in a square grid surrounded by 64 elements in a circle; and some monumental towers by Louise Bourgeois.
However the Beacon site changes, the success it has already become, and the role he has played in it, seem to have whetted Mr. Riggio's appetite for the meatpacking-district move. And his support, of course, is crucial. "The idea of capping the High Line with a building only two stories high is great," he said. "It's the same architecture and northern light as Beacon."
At this point, Mr. Govan said it was still too early to say exactly what the new building will look like. No materials have been chosen, but it is clear that Dia officials envision a no-frills design. The new galleries will be simple, large, uninterrupted spaces. Mr. Govan said he saw the main gallery, conjoining the High Line, as "a factorylike space," roughly more than 200 feet long and more than 100 feet wide.
And with the added space, the foundation will be able to commission more ambitious projects, allowing the art to dominate its green and gritty surroundings.