With nary a whimper, an era has come to an end. At 11:59 pm on Mar. 12, 2010, the elegantly utilitarian redbrick building at 548 West 22nd Street, the former home of the Dia Foundation for the Arts, locked its doors. Most likely, it will never be an art space again. In a city with so little first-rate institutional exhibition space, and so much bad space, this building’s near-perfect 36,000 square feet will be dearly missed. Especially because there will always be the terrible feeling that it didn’t have to be this way -- that institutional hubris, shortsightedness and mismanagement created this sad situation. The closing is the grim symbol of a deeply misguided expansion era for many museums, one that is only now ending.
The building on West 22nd Street is a special case. For one thing, it was the very first gallery in Chelsea. (Today, there are more than 200.) Opened as the Dia Center for the Arts in October 1987, it began life with three spectacular shows of the German artists Joseph Beuys, Blinky Palermo and Imi Knoebel. Dia was the brainchild of a visionary German art dealer, Heiner Friedrich, and his wife, Philippa de Menil. Dia hadn’t originally been meant to have an exhibition space in New York at all -- it had, up until then, spent millions on spectacular projects like Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field in New Mexico. It helped Donald Judd buy a 340-acre former U.S. Army post in Marfa, Texas, where he created a private museum for his own work and that of several other artists he admired.
The West 22nd Street space was uncommonly art-friendly, with a gigantic freight elevator and airy, stripped-down rooms with rectangular proportions. Dia made maximum use of these magical spaces, presenting stellar long-term exhibitions of artists like Gerhard Richter, Bridget Riley, Brice Marden, Jessica Stockholder and many others. While Dia’s taste could be annoyingly stringent and sometimes insular, the organization was consistently about vision, commitment, experimentation and obsession. You could argue with its choices but not its philosophy.
Then in 2004, when the art business had never been so flush with money, disaster struck. A year after opening its gigantic new exhibition facilities in Beacon, intended to house a generation of artists like Judd, Dan Flavin, John Chamberlain and Richard Serra, Dia shut down the West 22nd Street building. The decision came out of the blue. Nobody ever made it clear exactly why; the official line was that the building was unsuited to the large number of visitors it was drawing. It all happened fast, so there was no “Save Dia” initiative, no protest, no controversy. Nothing. It just closed. Michael Govan, then Dia director and now in charge of the Los Angeles Museum of Art, was the man who made the decision. Losing the miracle that was West 22nd Street cut to the heart of the art world. Even those still associated with Dia tell me -- privately, on background -- that they feel pain every time they see or think of it. Many people share those feelings.
After the closing, the West 22nd Street building sat vacant for years. It was sold to real-estate investors, its fate unclear. But then art came back to 548 West 22nd, albeit briefly. In 2009, a handful of intrepid art-worlders, including dealer Elizabeth Dee and curator Cecilia Alemani, approached the developers, scraped together money to lease it, and reopened the building last March to house a project called the X-Initiative. They presented 12 exhibitions and more than 50 events. More than 75,000 visitors attended.
The X Initiative was, from the beginning, a finite project, meant to last one year, and in early March, with one week left on X’s lease, the group behind it opened the four-day finale known as “The Independent.” To everyone outside the group, it was an art fair populated by selected galleries from around the world. The X people called it “the hybrid model,” which implied the melding of the gallery and museum systems. Crowds showed up; the energy was tremendous, the mood fantastic. As the spectacular last act of the X Initiative, “The Independent” suggested that a new generation was finding ways to create structures that don’t feel like they’re being run by the system. And last week, it all came to an end.
No one knows what the current plans for the building are. Looking on the bright side, Dia recently announced that it has secured the space directly across from its former home, and it is getting ready to erect a new building there of around 48,000 square feet. With luck this space will be a new beginning. Until then, spare a thought for 548 West 22nd Street. It’s a rare building that gets to change both the entire art world and an entire city neighborhood.
JERRY SALTZ is art critic for New York magazine, where this essay first appeared. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.