‘There Were Women Working Then, Too’: How Dia Director Jessica Morgan Is Breaking Open the (Male) Canon of Postwar Art
We spoke to the dynamic visionary about how she is leading the Dia Art Foundation into a more diverse future.
Since its establishment in 1974, the Dia Art Foundation has been dedicated to expanding visitors’ perceptions of what art can be, welcoming viewers into its fabled sanctum-like spaces to encounter artworks that escape the confines of the canvas or pedestal to envelop one’s senses entirely. For the past four years, Dia has been expanding perceptions of who artists can be as well—deviating from its history of showing the Great Men of postwar experimental art to encompass other artists from the period, women in particular, whose stories had for too long been left out of the canon.
This evolution of the institution—so long associated with the heroics of largely male Minimalist and Land Art pioneers like Robert Smithson and Donald Judd—is the handiwork of Jessica Morgan, the star curator who left her post as head of the Tate’s international art department to take over the directorship of Dia in 2015. Since her arrival, the museum has put on shows by artists including Dorothea Rockburne, Michelle Stuart, Anne Truitt, and Charlotte Posenenske; made acquisitions of significant work by Mary Corse and Nancy Holt, including the latter’s fabled Sun Tunnels in Utah’s Great Basin Desert; and also diversified its spotlights on male artists to include French neon artist François Morellet, the Korean painter Lee Ufan, and, coming this August, the African American color-field painter Sam Gilliam.
Morgan, whose dynamic realignment of Dia’s programming has extended to her staff, is also in the early stages of re-shaping the institution’s footprint in New York—and in Beacon, as well, where its cavernous space in a former Nabisco box factory is one of the Hudson Valley’s greatest art pilgrimage destinations. To find out more about the philosophy animating her leadership of the museum, artnet News’s Andrew Goldstein spoke to the director about what she sees as Dia’s core identity and how that informs her vision for its future.
What was Dia like when you arrived to take over this rangy, uncommon art organization, and what compelled you to take the job?
I’ll answer the second part first: I had lived in New York quite a bit in the 1990s and was well aware of the mythology of Dia. The exhibitions I saw at Dia in Chelsea were hugely important for me and I used to go to a lot of the symposiums there, so it loomed large when I was starting out as a curator. Then, like many people, I was a little puzzled by what happened in the later years when Chelsea closed—I loved going out to Beacon, but it was a bit of a mystery to me what their plans were in the city. So when they approached me about it, my immediate reaction was, well, I love Beacon, but I don’t know—how can I put it—how fascinating that would be for me for a long period of time, thinking that collection was the limit of the institution and not understanding what the real situation was.
But in the first conversation I had with one of the trustees, I understood there was great appetite for change, and that the collection had the possibility to grow—which wouldn’t necessarily have occurred to me. Like many people, I thought it was a set thing for the artists who made up its historic collection, and that was that.
That hunger for growth that you gleaned from the trustee, was it a question of growing the number of works in the collection, or of diversifying the collection?
To be honest, I think they were looking for a leader to come in and decide what the direction was. The previous director, Philippe [Vergne], was focusing more on contemporary commissions, so there may have been a discussion about collecting contemporary. To my mind, it seemed really clear that we have this incredible focus on a particular period, and yet there was so much more that could happen if one really delved into that moment and thought about all the people who were missing.
At Tate, where I had been for the last 12 years, the collection became incredibly important to me, since I realized it lasts forever. It sounds like an obvious thing, I suppose, but the collection is the bedrock and any exhibition program should come out of the thinking around the collection.
Then, parallel to that, little did I know—and I don’t think many others knew, either—but Dia had these three buildings on the north side of 22nd Street and the board was intent on seeing that revitalized as an exhibition space again. My feeling was, let’s just start using those buildings again right away and see what it feels like having a space in the city again, rather than waiting for this ideal moment where we’ve raised lots of money and figured out exactly what we want to do. Why don’t we just learn through doing?
Now, as we get into this moment of relaunching in Chelsea next year, we have a much clearer sense of who we are—not trying to be everything to everyone, but focusing on what Dia can do best.
Let’s split what you just said into two tracks, because while I definitely want to talk about the building project, I’d like to first delve more into what you said about Dia’s concentration on a particular moment in time. How would you delineate that zone in art history? What is Dia’s focus? Because for the longest time Dia was concentrated on Minimalism and Land Art, but now seems to be evolving into something else.
We talk about that a lot. The fact is that most of the artists we show would shudder at the thought of being called “Minimalists,” but certainly there is this strand of artists who we associate with that particular moment, whether it’s Dan Flavin or Donald Judd or Sol LeWitt. But the 12 artists who were collected at the origin of Dia in the 1970s also included a number of German artists who are still very relevant to the collection—Joseph Beuys, Imi Knoebel, Blinky Palermo—and that European strand is something that we’ve built on as well.
Do you see all of these artists grouped together, then, by the era in which they were active, the 1960s and ’70s? Is that the frame for the collection?
It was certainly a period of incredible innovation and experimentation, not only in America and Europe but also in Latin America and Asia as well. There was a desire to move away from the understanding of the art object as a singular thing and to instead experience art as something that is spacial, architectural, environmental, experiential, process-based. That goes for when you’re talking about the incredible Land Art that was largely pursued by American artists, or the way in which the light of a Dan Flavin expands across the architecture of the space, to the point where it’s very difficult to say that a Flavin work is just the fluorescent bulb—it’s really the entire room in which that piece is situated. We’ve also started to collect a number of artists who were working in Japan at that time, and they were thinking in a different and yet similar way, insofar as the work is really about the context in which it’s sited.
What’s true of all of these artists is that their work is fundamentally about training us to look and see better, to apply that same level of attention to everything around you, non-art and art. It’s about making you more aware.
It would seem to me, if I were to put my branding hat on, that Dia’s place in the New York museum firmament would then be as the destination to see experimental, experiential art—is that fair to say?
Yes, and that continues to be the case with our commissions today. Just look at Dorothea Rockburne, who has taken this incredible direction with painting where her canvas is actually the wall, the space, the environment, the floor, and where your body is surrounded by the work—her contribution was huge at that moment in time, but because of the ephemeral nature of her installations, many people weren’t able to see it. So working with Dorothea over a number of years to recreate these installations is something that only we can do, and the fact that that we will then leave it on view for a number of years so that people can really begin to understand, study, research, and write about this work is a huge part of what we do as well.
Time is a very important factor in everything that happens at Dia. Coming back to a permanent or long-term installation in different frames of mind, with different knowledge, is really an essential part of the experience.
It’s notable that, while Minimalism, Land Art, and the other work traditionally associated with Dia is historically seen as very macho and male, you have clearly been putting a lot of emphasis on bringing more female energy into Dia.
I wouldn’t deny that it was hugely important to me that we brought these artists, who are women, into the collection. Because if one goes back to the moment, they were all there. Dorothea was having shows at Bykert Gallery, which was one of the central experimental spaces in downtown New York at that time, and Anne Truitt was showing at André Emmerich, one of the refined uptown galleries. But over a period of decades they were gradually written out of history, and it’s very much our work to bring them back. More than that, actually—it’s also to bring them into the contemporary parlance. I want young people—and most of our audience at Dia:Beacon is super young, with about 70 percent in their twenties—to look at this work and not have that sense of a received hierarchy, but instead to understand: here are the 10 great figures from this moment in time.
The wonderful thing that happens at Beacon is that everything is seen in an equal domain—there isn’t a sense in which one person is elevated higher than another. We have the capacity to change the story by presenting artists who perhaps haven’t been included before. That’s why I’m very excited about the Sam Gilliam installation, too—we were just with him in DC last week, and appropriately for Dia, his show is going to be a very bold, single statement in the space.
In addition to bringing in new voices to the museum, you’ve recruited a incredibly talented roster of female curators and curators of color to work at Dia. It’s clear since your arrival that there has been a gradual shift in perspective and perhaps in ethos there, which would appear to be a revolutionary move considering that the period Dia focuses on has so long been….
Defined in a different way. I’m glad you say that—I couldn’t agree more. In making the shift from curator to director when I came to Dia, I realized this was one way to rethink an institution. Not that Dia needed rethinking—it’s got an incredible mission—so perhaps refocusing would be a better word. But it’s a completely holistic undertaking, and for me it’s very important that we are rethinking our maternity leave and making Dia a place where families are able to work with better benefits. It’s similarly about bringing in a diverse staff. That’s key.
The history of that moment in time is marked by a particular character, but the reality is that there were all these women working then too: critics, curators, artists. It’s just about not allowing those histories to be lost. And, certainly, male curators are often good at righting these wrongs, but it has been a pleasure to see the growth of another generation of really strong female voices in institutions.
Of course, the change your pursuing at Dia is not happening in a vacuum. A electrically powered Mary Corse that you acquired caught fire at Dia last fall, and while that’s alarming it’s also oddly poetic, because her work has been catching fire in the art market too of late. She’s gotten so hot that all of a sudden she has three top-tier galleries representing her—Lisson in London, Kayne Griffin Corcoran in LA, and Pace everywhere else. What do you make of this moment when long-overlooked artists are suddenly becoming market stars?
We’ve seen this with Michelle Stuart and Dorothea [Rockburne], who is being courted by many galleries competing to represent her work. We’ve seen an uptick in interest in Anne Truitt as well. It’s very far from our interest to have a role in market change. But, sadly, most people only come to value something once the market value is confirmed for them—even though Truitt’s work was just as good when it cost less. In some sense, these things are important in order to cement the artists’ place in time. So it’s been very satisfying to see that growth of interest in their work on many levels, because it’s this combined force that ensures people will continue to see and understand it.
Another important part of what we do is publications. It’s shocking that Dorothea Rockburne—who is 86 years old, and to my mind a major artist—has only one publication to her name, which is now out of print. This is inconceivable. Think about someone like Brice Marden—Brice is of the same generation, both worked in Rauschenberg’s studio, both are extraordinary painters, and meanwhile Brice has dozens and dozens of publications. These are just really incomprehensible disparities that we need to address. Mary Corse now has two great publications, the Whitney publication and one that her gallery put out, but, again, she had no book until then. It’s that crazy? If we don’t have this kind of accumulation of material then that’s how people get lost and forgotten.
Dia always has a somewhat transcendent, ageless quality to it, perhaps because of the quality of the light in Beacon and the vast stillness of the space. But there’s also a kind of poignant religiosity to this idea of going back in time and mending the history, like a monkish order in the mountains inscribing ancient parchment to keep the knowledge alive—except what you’re doing is reclaiming artists into their rightful place in history, and also surfacing them to contemporary viewers.
It’s something I thought a lot about when I started—why does Dia’s collection feel so relevant still? Why does this work still speak to us? If had a collection about strict Abstract Expressionism, I don’t think that would be the case. It really comes down the fact that so much of this work is about questions that will be with us forever—about place, optical capacity, architecture, light, protest, landscape, ecology. If anything, they’re probably even more present for us now than they were then, certainly in the case of the land artists we work with so closely. I do not think any of our audiences get on the train and come to Beacon thinking, “I’m going to take a trip down memory lane and hang out with works from the ’60s and ’70s.” The museum offers a present, contemporary experience—which is a remarkable testament to what that generation of artists has been able to achieve.
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