In 1988, Michael Govan, then just 25 and deputy director of New York’s Guggenheim Museum, visited Judd in Marfa, an experience he calls “transformative.” Afterward, Govan says, “I completely understood why Judd had abandoned working with other institutions and made his own. Other museums were concerned with admissions revenue, marketing, big shows and building buildings that people would recognize. And all of a sudden I see Judd with this simple situation, this permanent installation, taking care of every detail in the simplest way. And the feeling was something you could be entirely immersed and lost in.” Two years later, Govan accepted the directorship of the scaled-down Dia. “I knew it was the one place that held more of Judd’s principles than anyplace else,” he says, “whether there was money to execute them or not.” In fact, there was a $1.6 million deficit. But Govan’s agreement with Dia board members was that they would consider a permanent home for the collection if he could stabilize the finances. By 1998, the budget had been balanced for three years. That was also the year that Dia showed Torqued Ellipses, a new work by sculptor Richard Serra.
The three monumental sculptures—looming formations each twisted out of 40 to 60 tons of two-inch-thick steel plate—dominated the Chelsea gallery as they now (along with the latest in the group, 2000, a torqued spiral) dominate their space at Dia:Beacon. As you circle each behemoth, you are as aware of the sinuous spaces between the sculptures as of the forms themselves. But as you move inside the openings of the monoliths, everything changes. However bullied you might feel outside, once in, you feel calm.
Leonard Riggio, founder and chairman of Barnes and Noble, had scarcely heard of Dia when he went to see the Serra show. “It was magic to me,” he recalls. At Govan’s urging, he spent nearly $2 million to buy Torqued Ellipses for Dia, jump-starting its dormant collecting program. At about that time, Govan and curator Lynne Cooke, who had also come to Dia in 1990, began looking for space for a permanent museum. One day, flying some 60 miles north of New York City in a rented Cessna 172—Govan got his pilot’s license in 1996—they spotted a faded Nabisco factory sign on the banks of the Hudson River. Back in New York, Govan traced the building to the International Paper Corporation and drove up to see it on a wet spring day.
“So I walk into the building and it is spectacular,” he remembers. “I said, ‘Would they ever consider giving it to a museum?’ They said, ‘Absolutely not. This is for sale.’ ” In the end, however, International Paper donated the factory and the land to the museum, and Govan raised the money for the renovation through public and private contributions. The project (a three-way collaboration between Irwin, Govan and the New York City architectural firm OpenOffice) began in 1999. At the same time, Govan and curator Cooke were building the collection.
In 1994, Govan had learned that collector Charles Saatchi wanted to sell a rare group of paintings by the New Mexico based artist Agnes Martin. “It seemed to me that this work of art was very much like what Dia had collected,” he recalled. “It was a big epic—really a major work.” But Govan was too late; the paintings had already been sold to the Whitney. “So I asked if she would consider doing another series,” Govan says. Martin didn’t respond. “Then, in 1999, I get a call saying that Agnes is working on the Dia paintings, and they are really important to her. I said, ‘What?’” Without telling Govan, Martin, now age 91 and still painting, had taken up the challenge and gone ahead with the project.