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Art & Design

Dia Art Foundation Calls Off Museum Project

Published: October 25, 2006

With no director and a board in flux, the Dia Art Foundation has scrapped its plans to open a museum at the entrance to the High Line, an abandoned elevated railway line in Manhattan. The area, running from Gansevoort Street to 34th Street, is to become a park with the help of city money.

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Rendering by Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro. Courtesy the City of New York.

A rendering of the preliminary design for the High Line.

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Nathalie de Gunzburg, Dia’s new board chairwoman, informed the city of the decision yesterday in a letter to Kate D. Levin, New York’s cultural affairs commissioner. “Dia’s board has decided that the organization should take a different course at this time,” she said.

Reached by telephone, Ms. Levin said that other cultural organizations had approached the city about the High Line site, but she declined to specify which ones.

Officials familiar with the High Line discussions said that the Whitney Museum of American Art had emerged as a high-profile contender.

Trustees at the Whitney are mulling whether to proceed with an addition designed by the architect Renzo Piano, those officials said. That plan calls for a series of glass bridges to connect the museum’s original 1966 Marcel Breuer building on Madison Avenue at 75th Street to a new nine-story tower. The officials said they did not want to be quoted for fear of being perceived as pre-empting a decision by the Whitney board.

Asked whether the Whitney was considering backing out of the Piano expansion in favor of a site at the High Line, a museum spokeswoman, Jan Rothschild, said yesterday, “The Whitney is keeping its expansion options open,” adding, “We are considering several sites for additional space and have had discussions with the city about the Gansevoort/Washington site.”

She declined to comment further, but the site abandoned by Dia is at 820 Washington Street, at Gansevoort.

Amid sharply escalating construction costs, the Whitney trustees are said to be reconsidering whether, after having to raise several hundred million dollars, the museum will end up getting the kind of space it needs.

Officials familiar with the talks said Whitney trustees and staff members were discussing the possibility of opening a more modest satellite museum downtown, where the Whitney could have larger-scale spaces for cutting-edge artworks as well as attract the young, hip audience who frequents the art and nightclub scene. They emphasized that the talks were preliminary.

Were the museum to back out of the Piano addition, it would be the third time that it has commissioned a celebrity architect to design a major expansion to its landmark building, only to renege. A $37 million design by Michael Graves was jettisoned in 1985; in 2003 the Whitney backed out of a $200 million addition by Rem Koolhaas.

Mr. Piano’s project met with heated challenges from preservationists who said a brownstone facade on Madison, part of the Upper East Side Historic District, would be eliminated to make way for the new entrance.

The architect narrowed the entry, and after a series of hearings, his plan was approved by the city’s Board of Standards and Appeals in July.

Ms. de Gunzburg stressed that Dia, which now operates an exhibition site along the Hudson River in Beacon, N.Y., is still committed to seeking a presence in the city.

But the first priority, she said, is hiring a successor to Michael Govan, who resigned in February after 12 years as Dia’s director to run the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

“It was a hard decision to make,” she said in a telephone interview yesterday. “But we felt it is more responsible to proceed slowly. We need to find a new director first.”

Ms. Levin said the city was disappointed that the Dia Foundation was not pursuing the High Line project, on which ground was broken in April. Nonetheless, “they deserve a huge amount of credit for having the idea,” she said. “We think it’s a fabulous complement to have a cultural organization at the entrance to the High Line.”

The first phase, set to open in spring 2008, will run from Gansevoort Street through 20th Street. For now, 820 Washington Street is an abandoned shell of a structure in the heart of the meatpacking district.

That the High Line should have a cultural anchor was originally the brainstorm of Mr. Govan, Dia’s longtime director. In May 2005 he announced Dia’s intentions to move to Washington Street from its two spaces on West 22nd Street in Chelsea. (One is now sitting empty; the other has been rented.)

At the time, he said Dia’s board envisioned transforming the building into 45,000 square feet of raw, open gallery space on two levels, illuminated by skylights. He estimated the cost at about $55 million.

He said its Chelsea spaces were awkward and could no longer accommodate the crowds.

The space Mr. Govan had envisioned on Washington Street would have been a place for temporary exhibitions like the ones it had in Chelsea. Dia’s 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 in May 2003 in an abandoned 1929 box factory.

Laura Raicovich, Dia’s deputy director, said attendance was running about 75,000 a year at the Beacon site, in line with the original projection.

In addition to its Beacon home, Dia oversees 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 Institute in Bridgehampton, N.Y.

The loss of Mr. Govan was not the only setback at Dia this year. Leonard Riggio, one of the institution’s biggest benefactors, who gave $30 million toward Dia:Beacon, stepped down as chairman in May. Last week he resigned from Dia’s board.

Mr. Riggio was replaced by Ms. de Gunzburg, a Manhattan philanthropist and collector who has been on Dia’s board for more than two years and headed its committee on trustees.

Ms. de Gunzburg and Ms. Raicovich declined to say whether there were any front-runners for the director’s post. But people familiar with the search say that one name that has repeatedly surfaced is that of Mark Bessire, director of the Bates College Museum of Art in Lewiston, Me.

“We’re hoping to have a new director within the next two months,” Ms. Raicovich said. “But as of now, no offer has been extended to anyone.”

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