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11.17.2006
Dia's Moving Plan D.O.A.
Whitney Now Eyeing Meatpacking District Site


Dia's Moving Plan D.O.A.
Whitney now eyeing Meatpacking District site 


Dia's now-defunct design by SOM 
COURTESY SOM 

When the Dia Art Foundation’s galleries at 548 West 22 Street closed in January 2004, it left a temporary void in New York’s cultural landscape, filled later that year with the promise of a new location connected to the proposed High Line Park. But on October 24, as reported in the New York Times, Kate Levin, commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA) received a letter from Dia’s new board chair, Nathalie de Gunzburg, announcing that the institution would not occupy the city-owned building at 820 Washington Street as intended. The announcement was followed by the surprising news that the Whitney Museum of American Art is considering the site as an alternative to expanding its Marcel Breuer–designed home on Madison Avenue.

The Dia’s Gansevoort proposal matched the pioneering spirit the foundation embodied. Just as the museum settled in the then-burgeoning West Chelsea area in 1987, spurring its rise as an arts district, Dia would have created a stronghold for art in the transitioning Meatpacking District, and become a crucial part in the transformation of the High Line from an aging elevated railway into a dramatically landscaped public space.

In February of this year, Dia’s director Michael Govan was hired away after a 12-year tenure to become director and CEO of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Shortly thereafter, Leonardo Riggio, chairman of Barnes & Noble, stepped down from Dia’s board after serving for eight years, thrusting the institution into a state of instability as both men were key leaders in Dia’s growth.

Sources close to the situation suggest that between time pressure from the city, which aims to open the building by 2009, and the Whitney Museum’s expressed interest in the location as an alternative to their much-contested uptown expansion plans, Dia was forced to make a decision before they had a new director in place. Laura Raicovich, Dia’s deputy director, conceded that timing was a factor. She stated that going forward with the Meatpacking District plan did not make sense until the foundation had a director in place and the “New York City program is developed.” 

While construction on the Meatpacking site had yet to begin, Dia had been working with Roger Duffy of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) on the design of the 92,600-square-foot location. “It would have been a perfect project for the city,” Duffy said. “We worked closely with Ricardo Scofidio and James Corner [the masterplanners of the High Line] to make sure that the projects would interface well. I am a huge fan of Dia, and anyone who thinks highly of them is disappointed by the news.

“The site wasn’t entirely easy,” he continued. “There are meat lockers close by, and the maintenance and administration areas for the High Line—and public bathrooms—had to be in the building. But we managed an elegant solution. Maybe a wiser person would have seen the writing on the wall when Michael left.” 

Joshua David, co-founder of Friends of the High Line, maintains that despite Dia’s decision, the emphasis of the High Line continues to be on its cultural and artistic value, but added, “That site is unusual because it’s owned by the city of New York, so the city has the ability to shape how it is used.”

Despite the disappointment, City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden seemed sure that another cultural institution will take over the space. “A cultural use at 820 Washington is ideal for the southern terminus and principal entry to the High Line. The city will be actively seeking another cultural use,” Burden wrote by email.

Whitney spokesperson Jan Rothschild declined to comment about the museum’s intentions at 820 Washington Street other than to reiterate that the Whitney is “keeping its expansion options open.” But, she added, “No matter what we do, we are committed to working with Renzo Piano, and he is committed to us.” In an interview with Newsweek on November 2, Piano said that in September the museum asked him to consider the notion of designing a new building on a downtown site, and brought him to 820 Washington Street.

The Whitney’s attempts to expand its facilities spans 20 years, during which time it has hired and fired two architects—Michael Graves in 1985 and Rem Koolhaas in 2003—before hiring Renzo Piano to draw up plans in 2005. Piano’s initial plan met with stiff resistance from the community and the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) but ultimately won all the necessary approvals and was granted several zoning variances in July from the city’s Board of Standards and Appeals. A new hurdle took shape when a coalition of Upper East Side neighbors filled suit against the museum in late August to contest the variances.

Meanwhile, Dia remains committed to finding another location in New York. “The Gansevoort site is a great location, but New York has other great locations,” Raicovich said. “Dia’s top priority is looking for the site that will best accommodate its programs.” 

Samantha Topol