Other People and Their Ideas No 21: Jessica Morgan

Curator of the 10th Gwangju Biennale and former Daskalopoulos curator at Tate Modern, Jessica Morgan talks to Tom Eccles about her new position as director of the Dia Art Foundation, New York, from the April 2015 issue

By Tom Eccles

Jessica Morgan. Photo: Douglas Lance Gibson Walter De Maria, The Lightning Field, New Mexico, 1977, maintained by Dia. Photo: John Cliett

Dia was founded in New York City in 1974 by Philippa de Menil, Heiner Friedrich and Helen Winkler. The foundation seeks ‘to help artists achieve visionary projects that might not otherwise be realized because of scale or scope’. Among those is The Lightning Field (1977), completed by Walter De Maria near Quemado, New Mexico, which Dia commissioned and maintains, and Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970), in Great Salt Lake, Utah, which came to Dia as a gift from the estate of the artist in 1999. More recently, in 2013, Dia presented Thomas Hirschhorn’s Gramsci Monument in the Bronx, New York. Its permanent collection is housed at Dia:Beacon, which opened in Beacon, New York, in 2003. Having closed its primary New York City venue in 2004 and controversially deacquisitioned a series of works in 2013 to raise funds, the organisation is aiming to break ground on a new building in New York City within the next couple of years.


Having started only a few months ago, you must be just finding your feet. But it's been a long time now, since any of us knew in what direction Dia was going, and so I wanted to begin by asking what – in broad strokes – are your aspirations for the institution? Because I think many people are hopeful that you can put it back on the map, so to speak.

Jessica Morgan

Having arrived from a very large national institution (Tate Modern), which has a responsibility to be many things to many people, I find the clarity of Dia an inspiration rather than a limitation. The directive of Dia – its commitment to artistic practice, to the legendary sites, to the collection and of course to the unique space of Beacon – has allowed me to think very clearly about what should be done. With Dia it is always necessary to look back in order to move forward, and among the ideas that emerge from this great history are not only the necessity of reconnecting with aspects of our past – we have a long history of sound and music in the programme, for instance, as well as the potential to increase the number of our permanent sites – but also the expansion of the collection with a few carefully chosen artists. Dia’s commitment to its artists is a remarkable and ongoing relationship that features talks, research, publications and discussions, and so the addition of new figures brings in-depth, lasting attention on a unique scale. It is not about amassing hoards of work, but rather it’s about developing a lifelong relationship with an artist’s ideas. I am keen both to further our already existing ties as well as thoughtfully to expand this. Additional artists will of course allow for new thinking around Dia:Beacon, where the lower galleries in particular offer extraordinary potential. I ‘grew up’ as a curator in the US during the 1990s, so the history of the Dia:Chelsea projects is one permanently etched in my memory. Of course establishing a space for Dia in Chelsea is a top priority, but so is the commitment to contemporary production that can happen now – and will happen in the future – leading up to an expanded presence in the city.

AR A former director of Dia once told me ( jokingly) that he introduced entrance fees to keep visitor numbers down. Dia was (and in Beacon maybe still is) a place to be alone with art. Coming from the Tate, which is busy to say the least, what is your attitude to audience numbers? Can you run an arts organisation today without a large crowd? And does the popularity of art come at a price?

JM It is vitally important that there are different models of museums and, with that, alternative types of experience for art. Dia – which includes all of its sites as well as Beacon – has always been about a journey and not simply about a visit. The atmosphere that is part of this experience is crucial and sustainable in certain circumstances. Given that there are so few places now devoted to a singularity of vision, it seems all the more important to think not only about the number of people who come but the type of experience that can be offered.

AR ‘Sustainability’ is a word that haunts every not-for-profit director. Dia is an interesting case in point, having experienced a dramatic moment during the 1980s when Philippa de Menil was forced to reduce her financial commitment to the project and annual expenditures dropped dramatically. Patronage of many of Dia’s chosen artists, not least Donald Judd and his Marfa project, suffered what might be called an ‘adjustment in expectations’. It also led to gallerist and cofounder Heiner Friedrich leaving Dia. Today Dia continues to maintain a number of sites throughout the United States (Walter De Maria’s The New York Earth Room in Chelsea and The Lightning Field in New Mexico, both 1977; Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, 1970, in Utah; and the Dan Flavin Art Institute in Bridgehampton, New York, among them). And the biggest ‘off-site’ project is Dia:Beacon, which houses the collection. Dia recently sold a number of works from the collection to create an acquisition fund, a move opposed by three of the founding directors, including Friedrich. How would you explain the need for another Dia building, this time in Chelsea?

Dia’s mission has always been actively to commission new works by living artists, and while some may be ideal for the unique setting in Beacon, others will be better suited to a Manhattan site

JM Dia’s connection to Manhattan and Chelsea has always been a defining part of its identity and arguably there are works in the collection that need to be seen in the city, such as Blinky Palermo’s 1976 work To the People of New York City. The need to share with the public works such as this and the extensive collection we have of works by artists such as [Alighiero] Boetti, [John] Chamberlain, [Hanne] Darboven, [Dan] Flavin, and [Fred] Sandback also calls for additional space in the city. Dia’s mission has always been actively to commission new works by living artists, and while some may be ideal for the unique setting in Beacon, others will be better suited to a Manhattan site.

AR When one walks through the spaces at Beacon with rooms of Donald Judd, Carl Andre, Imi Knoebel, Gerhard Richter et al, one becomes very aware of walking among men. Of course, there is also Louise Bourgeois (and Agnes Martin), but the Bourgeois come across, in this company, as the mad woman in the attic. When you say that you will consider adding other artists to the Dia canon, how might you complicate this story?

JM Let’s not forget Hilla Becher, Hanne Darboven, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Louise Lawler, Vera Lutter and Bridget Riley in the collection and on display in Beacon! Dia has also had a very active commissioning programme that has featured many women artists (Koo Jeong A, Trisha Brown, Tacita Dean, Jo Baer, Rosemarie Trockel and Joan Jonas, to name but a few). That said, much of my work at Tate has been involved with researching and acquiring artists for the collection, many of whom were female artists who had been gradually excised from art history, and I see no reason why I would change direction now.

AR You were also curator of international art at Tate Modern. That meant shifting beyond the parameters of ‘Western’ art. What challenges did that present at Tate, and are there lessons you learned there that will influence what you do as director of Dia?

JM My 12 years at Tate allowed for an intensive process of research in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, and South Asia in relation to the collection as well as work in Latin America, Asia and the Nordic countries for an upcoming exhibition. It was an incredible privilege to establish connections with the artists, independently run spaces, curators, academics and others who are the leading voices in these regions, and, as a result of the work of my colleagues, Tate has an excellent network for discussion, collection activities and most importantly research and publication. It was a steep learning curve, and I cannot profess any expertise in these areas, but the process has taught me invaluable lessons in regard to questioning a given history, the necessity to establish primary sources for information, the importance of always viewing works and the unrivalled benefit of speaking directly to artists in order to understand the context and complexities of a given time. For Dia no doubt I will continue to encourage this process of research, which also entails questioning the given history with which we are presented. I am quite sure we will be able to bring new light and perspectives to the period with which the collection is most closely associated.

AR How would you describe your ‘curatorial signature’?

JM I have always been drawn to areas or artists where I feel there is a contribution to be made – whether it is about bringing attention to work or media that has been overlooked or lost, or to highlight practices that for various reasons have not been celebrated or studied. That said, it’s always an immense pleasure to work with artists on new works, and I have been extensively involved in commissioning and production with artists both known and unknown. The manner in which work is presented is of great interest to me – the haptic, experiential quality of art encounters. Of course this makes working at Dia an incredible privilege.

AR Other than money, what do you think are the biggest challenges facing museums, and where should we look to find the answers?

JM The threat of uniformity seems an urgent one to address. The increasing similarity of collections and programmes at many institutions could be the result of many factors: market pressure; the fashion-driven consequences of the availability of information; the demand for popularity; a desire to satisfy the vox populi. I think strength of character in resisting the trend towards increasing similarity is essential.

AR Dia is built upon art that grew out of the mid-to-late 1960s and matured in the early 70s. Could you see the Dia Foundation expanding its permanent collection to include works from, say, the 1980s or 90s? Would you consider, for example, a major gift of works from the ‘Pictures Generation’?

JM I think that because there is so much still to be done in that period of time in which Dia’s collection is embedded, for the time being this is really the priority for the collection. Once again I would also return to the need for distinction: there are other museums far better suited to covering the terrain of the 1980s and 90s and no need for us to duplicate their work. Every artist added to the collection – necessarily through a body of work, an installation or some sizeable representation of their practice – is a deep commitment through talks, publications and ongoing research, so it is not a decision to be taken lightly. 

This article was first published in the April 2015 issue.