Philippe Vergne on the Future of Dia

I started the day that Lehman Brothers collapsed,” Philippe Vergne, the current director of the Dia Art Foundation, joked. “I was working for Lehman Brothers. I saw it coming, and I decided to go work for Dia.”

It’s a situation unimaginable just a few years ago, but these days the arts organization, having netted $38.55 million for the sale of its 22nd Street space in Chelsea in 2007, is on firmer footing than the bankrupt investment bank.

But of course it is still a difficult time to be running any nonprofit, much less one as storied as Dia. “We all benefited from the experience of the last few years,” Vergne admits candidly, remembering a time when money flowed more freely in the art world. “We might have a long hangover.” One year into his job, though, Vergne sounds determined for Dia to continue to play an important role in the contemporary art world. “There is always a silver lining,” he says, noting that the tighter economic climate has led arts organizations to rethink the way they operate. At Dia, senior staff members have taken a four percent salary cut, though the major layoffs seen at other arts institutions have been avoided.

Last month, the foundation opened a show designed by artist Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster with its curator, Lynne Cooke, as part of its ongoing residency at the Hispanic Society uptown in Washington Heights. Called “chronotapes & dioramas,” Gonzalez-Foerster’s show consists of three displays characteristic of a natural history museum respectively showing tropical, desert, and underwater environments, realized with the help of diorama specialists from the American Museum of Natural History. Books are hidden in the landscapes, lurking in the shows of trees or blending into the desert. Roberto Bolaños 2666 blends into the surrounding sand, while Joseph Conrads Heart of Darkness sits near a river.

Vergne says the piece is about the “the decay and entropy of culture.” He continues, “It’s a way to slow things down and help us reflect back on what we expect from culture.” Its creation followed the philosophy that Dia has long used: giving artists freedom to conceive and implement ambitious, long-term projects with few limitations. Vergne says that he wants that commissioning system to continue, saying that it is his organization’s job “to make the artist’s dream possible.”

The question now is where those dreams will be fulfilled. Francis Alÿs and Zoe Leonard earned positive reviews for their shows at the Hispanic Society in past years, and the organization’s branch in upstate New York, Dia:Beacon, a 240,000-square-foot space opened in a former Nabisco factory in 2003, has attracted a sizeable following by showing a permanent collection rich with enormous works by Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, and Richard Serra. But these successes have also served to underscore Dia’s absence from the downtown art scene, where it first supported many of those artists.

“We need a New York City presence,” Vergne says plainly. But while Dia has long spoken of finding a new New York space, he is careful not to commit to a specific plan, saying that he wants to find “the best way to make sure that the idea of Dia is alive and implemented. Is that brick and mortar, is that a dispersion of projects in the city or internationally? Everything is on the table right now.”

At the moment, Dia maintains a vast portfolio of art sites, including Walter de Marias New York Earth Room (1977), the second floor of a SoHo building filled with dirt, and Lightning Field (1977), 400 stainless steel rods, each measuring, on average, a little over 20 feet, planted in the desert of western New Mexico. There is a Max Neuhaus sound piece in Times Square and a Dan Flavin Institute in Bridgehampton, N.Y.

Vergne is confident that Dia’s multi-site arrangement is workable. “We are an institution that is not hosted under one roof, but we are one,” he explains. “It's not that different than an institution that has a permanent collection, special exhibitions, and an artist residency.”

In some sense, Vergne is competing with more than three decades of history: Understanding the extent of the difficulties he faces requires understanding the foundation’s formidable legacy in the minds of a generation of artists, against which some will measure his work.

Vergne has also spent his first year studying the foundation’s history. “What I contemplated, looking at Dia, is that in every decade there is a shift, from SoHo to Chelsea, from Chelsea to Beacon.” In each instance, Dia was a pioneer.

Dia’s roots go back to 1974, when it was established as the Lone Star Foundation by art dealer Heiner Friedrich; his wife, Philippa de Menil; and the art historian Helen Winkler. De Menil, who is the daughter of Dominique de Menil, the formidable arts patron who founded Houston’s Menil Collection, used her sizeable holding of stock in the Schlumberger oil services company to embark on a philanthropic crusade almost unprecedented in the history of American art, providing grants, stipends, and — in some cases — whole buildings to artists such as Fred Sandback, Robert Whitman, and La Monte Young.

In the process of supporting and commissioning work from artists, Dia accumulated what Vergne describes as “one of the most breathtaking collections of art in this country and the world.” By the early 1980s, millions had been spent on Donald Judd’s projects in Marfa and Michael Heizers enormous City sculpture in rural Nevada. Then Schlumberger stock declined — and with it, Dia’s supply of funding. Some of its real estate and art holdings were sold. Phoebe Hoban, in a profile of de Menil and Friedrich in 1985, captured the ambition in her headline: “The Medicis for a Moment.”

That time, though, Dia bounced back. Administrators attracted new donors, and its Chelsea location thrived. Now Vergne hopes to make that happen again. “Dia is a fantastic collection of works, a fantastic collection of projects, and a fantastic idea,” he says, maintaining that the foundation must conserve the work it has created while pursuing other initiatives. He plans to visit City, which Dia stopped funding years ago, but he also hints at major, new programs to come. He explains, “I don’t want Dia to become a time capsule.”