Another space for contemporary art will open in Chelsea, some three years from now – designed by a firm known for its corporate practice. More coals in Newcastle? The Dia Foundation and Skidmore Owings & Merrill took a step closer toward building a new Dia space in Chelsea, releasing a rendering of the façade of Dia’s projected expansion on West 22nd Street.
The image of the project that unites three brick buildings across the street from DIA’s previous gallery space in Chelsea puts a face on the site’s future. Construction is expected to begin in 2014, with completion envisioned for 2016, said Dia’s director Philippe Vergne, who would not disclose the project’s budget.
Yet Dia’s new initiative raises questions. Why a return to the art-glut and tourist-glut of Chelsea, for an institution that pioneered operating an arts organization in far flung locales, such as the Hudson rust belt city of Beacon and the pre-exploited industrial neighborhood of Chelsea itself, twenty years ago? Does Chelsea need Dia, or does Dia need Chelsea?
“We are not expanding in New York. We are fully accomplishing our mission to work with and support living artists’ visions. Dia didn’t have a space to work with living artists – we were missing the capacity to actually engage with living artists,” said Vergne, who is embarking on his first building project. “When the building across the street was closed, it was always with the intent to reinvent a presence in New York.”
Designed by OpenOfficearts + architecture collaborative with the artist Robert Irwin, Dia:Beacon, with 78,500 visitors last year, is evidence that Beacon has not been Bilbao. Meanwhile, the tourist explosion that followed the High Line’s opening promises constant traffic in Chelsea. Then again, Vergne said, “Beacon was never planned for a Bilbao effect.”
“We didn’t have a center,” said Vergne, who characterized Dia as a “constellation” of activities in the U.S. and abroad. He would not even call new Dia; Chelsea a museum, but a “kunsthalle or institute.” Dia plans to show exhibitions devoted to one artist for one year in its 15,600 square feet of galleries.
Although Dia looked at sites in Harlem and elsewhere in New York City, its board moved ahead with the decision to expand in Chelsea when the Alcamo Marble works at 541 West 22nd Street (between two Dia-owned structures) became available. Dia bought that building almost a year ago for $11.5 million. “Dia tried to acquire this building for a very long time, and I was very happy that it could happen under my watch,” he said, intimating that Chelsea was always the preferred location for an institution that had pioneered locations in the past.
“I’m not Christopher Columbus,” he said. “I’m more interested in being a pioneer in our program than in geography. It’s an old school romantic model.”
Yet old school is now the criticism of Dia’s choice for its architect, SOM. Vergne said that he looked at more than 100 firms.
The SOM partner designing Dia:Chelsea, Roger Duffy, dismissed the prevailing notion among many architects that his firm was an unlikely choice for a relatively small project like Dia:Chelsea.
“Dia just put the art first, and I think very few institutions are putting the purpose first in the architecture,” Duffy said, echoing Gluckman’s approach to Dia’s galleries in 1987. Critics of the decision to hire SOM may read his remark as a diffident pre-emption of the reproach that the project’s design is unadventurous for a place like Dia, whose mission has been supporting experimental work.
“How do you measure that?” Vergne asked. “From time to time, going with the obvious, even if the obvious seems to be more eccentric, could be more conservative than the decision we have made.”
Vergne admitted that Dia:Chelsea had not yet found a donor equivalent to Leonard Riggio, the Barnes & Noble baron who gave $35 million for the reported $50 million construction cost of Dia;Beacon. In 2006, Dia killed ambitious plans for a space at the southern end of the High Line when Riggio resigned as board chairman. “But I can say that our board has raised a significant portion of the budget figure, which I won’t give you,” he said.