At Large  March 16, 2023  Lily Williams

Dia Art Foundation's Trailblazing History and Future

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Photograph of the entrance to the Dia:Beacon Museum

You may know the Dia Foundation from their renowned upstate escape, Dia Beacon. And while this arts center is a gem of contemporary art and sculpture, the Foundation’s work goes far beyond this singular location.

The organization is currently composed of three primary spaces for exhibitions – Dia Beacon, Dia Chelsea, and Dia Bridgehampton – along with eight permanent installations, site-specific projects, and commissions spanning the United States and Germany.

The Dia Foundation’s story began in 1974, when German art dealer Heiner Freidrich, curator Helen Winkler, and oil heiress, and art patron Philippa de Menil came together with the common goal of funding the creation of modern art. The method behind their funding was borrowed from the patronage popular during the Italian Renaissance. Friedrich, Winkler, and de Menil came together to provide a small number of promising artists with generous funding to create large-scale, avant garde works of art. As a result, the group began to be referred to as the “minimalist Medicis,” a reference to the storied Florentine dynasty.

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1968 Photo of Walter De Maria (1935-2013)

Eventually, though, the money dried up, and the Dia Foundation ran into some serious trouble. In November 1985, this culminated in an auction at Sotheby’s in which the Dia Art Foundation sold off eighteen of its works by the likes of Andy Warhol, Cy Twombly, and Donald Judd. This sale signified attempts to salvage the Dia Foundation, as a newly appointed board of trustees and administration also came on the scene during this year. Only Philippa de Menil remained as one of the Foundation’s original founders, as the leadership of the remaining group was proven to be financially disastrous. 

While administration and finances ran amok, the first decade of the Dia Foundation resulted in the creation of some of the most significant works and careers of the era. Works include James Turrell’s Roden Crater (1977) and Walter De Maria’s The Lightning Field (1977). These works cost vast quantities of money for their creation and upkeep, and are prime examples of Dia’s commitment to supporting large scale projects that fall far beyond the realm of the traditional art gallery, museum, or patron. The Foundation also supported artist Dan Flavin in founding the Dan Flavin Art Institute in Long Island in 1983, which would later become Dia Bridgehampton. Other influential artists whose careers were bankrolled by the foundation during this time include Donald Judd, John Chamberlain, LaMonte Young, and Maria Zazeela.

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Robert Smithson, View of Spiral Jetty from atop Rozel Point, in mid-April 2005.

By 1987, debts had been paid and the administration restructured, leading to the thriving foundation we know today. In 1987, Dia Chelsea opened as the foundation’s main exhibition space. Dia Beacon opened to the public years later in 2003, turning a massive warehouse space in upstate New York into a dynamic exhibition space and art destination. 

Art & Object connected with Dia curator, Alexis Lowry, to hear how this epic history has evolved into the foundation’s current state. When asked how Dia differs from other institutions, Lowry shares that, “Dia isn’t one place or thing, but rather a constellation of interconnected sites and locations. We consider all of these sites and locations to be equally important. This constellation has grown out of Dia’s commitment to helping present works on their own terms. Dia works with artists in depth over long periods of time, not only letting them guide how their work should be presented in exhibition contexts, but also commissioning new work, publications, and public programs around the artists in our collection and program.” This unique approach to supporting artists echoes the original goals of Dia’s original founders, allowing artists to make works of art that traditional arts institutions do not foster due to their nature and scale. 

Photo: Bill Jacobson Studio, New York. Courtesy Dia Art Foundation, New York

Dia:Beacon, Riggio Galleries, Beacon, New York. Dia Art Foundation, New York.

This core mission has only continued to grow and develop to meet the present moment. Lowry expands on this by describing how, “When Dia was founded in 1974 it was focused on a very small group of artists who came to prominence in the 1960s and 70s and were associated with minimalism, conceptual art, and post-minimalism. Today, almost fifty years later, our goal is to offer a more expansive and inclusive view of this important period of art history, while also exploring new commissions with contemporary artists who engage with these conceptual and material legacies.” 

Dia will be presenting several exciting exhibitions this year, featuring work by Senga Nengudi (in Dia Beacon and organized by Matilde Guidelli-Guidi from our team) and Chryssa (in Dia Chelsea and curated by Dia’s former assistant curator Megan Witko and Michelle White from the Menil). Through its extensive and groundbreaking programming, Dia continues to own its reputation as a trailblazer in the art world.

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