Since 2015 Jessica Morgan has served as director of the Dia Art Foundation, which was founded in New York in 1974 by Heiner Friedrich, Helen Winkler, and Philippa de Menil. Among its many early activities were commissions for permanent works including The Lightning Field (1977), a Land Art installation by Walter De Maria outside Quemado, New Mexico, and the 1983 inauguration of the Dan Flavin Art Institute in Bridgehampton, New York. Dia also maintains exhibition space in the Chelsea gallery district and in remote upstate New York at Dia:Beacon, a museum for minimal and postminimal art as well as contemporary commissions.
Rebecca Rabinow has served as director of the Menil Collection in Houston since 2016, when she left her role as a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The Texas institution grew out of epochal 20th-century collecting by John and Dominique de Menil, who acted as patrons of artists they nurtured from the 1940s through the 1990s. The Menil Collection has been housed since 1987 in a Renzo Piano–designed building that serves as the centerpiece on a campus that also includes the Rothko Chapel, the Cy Twombly Gallery, and a new Menil Drawing Institute, scheduled to open in 2018.
Because Philippa de Menil, the youngest of five children of John and Dominique, helped establish Dia, the two institutions have always had a kind of kinship. Morgan and Rabinow joined ARTnews for breakfast at Michael’s in Midtown Manhattan to talk about the past, present, and future of two iconic enterprises conceived by collectors. For Morgan, fresh fruit and green tea; for Rabinow, the same, plus water with lots of lemon. —Andy Battaglia
Rebecca Rabinow: We both have institutions that are unique. I remember once getting a social-media post that was all about “come to X Museum, there’s something here for everyone!” And I thought, “No, sometimes it’s better if there’s not.” Not every museum should look the same and have the same way of presenting things. How boring would that be?
Jessica Morgan: That’s a point I was trying to raise recently with the people presenting at AMDA [the Art Museum Development Association conference in New York]. There’s a desire for a standard in the industry, but I feel we should be thinking of ways in which we can diverge and have different relationships with audiences, different relationships with artists, different relationships to display and approach.
Rabinow: There’s this desire for alphas to come out and set a model for everyone, but that doesn’t allow for quirkiness. One of my great pleasures since arriving in Houston has been discovering just how quirky the city is. We had an artist come visit and he said it reminded him of L.A. in the ’60s. There’s this can-do attitude, and it’s fairly inexpensive, with lots of artists, lots of good food, lots of space, and people just getting to do their thing. There’s a freedom there that I didn’t expect, and it’s great to see. You may feel this way upstate.
Morgan: Yes, though—and this goes back to my AMDA experience, where people were talking about their “communities”—what is my community? Is it upstate New York? Is it New Mexico? Is it Utah, Bridgehampton, Chelsea, SoHo? Dia doesn’t have one community. Beacon is important to us and is one of our largest constituencies, but even a lot of those visitors are coming from the city on the train. It’s complicated to say.
ARTnews: How much have the two of you interacted in the past?
Rabinow: We met a few months after I started at the Menil Collection. We’re totally different institutions, but there’s a shared history, threads that weave in and out.
Morgan: There’s a sort of Texan pull to Dia that, before working there, I was not conscious of. It’s a strong gravitational force within the institution. I have to admit that in the ten years I lived in the United States previously, I had never been to Texas, and now I’m there all the time. I go to Houston to see Helen Winkler Fosdick, one of our founders, and visit the Menil to understand and pull apart the history. I agree: we’re different institutions, but we share similarly particular, visionary founders. I feel that history is present still at Dia. I see Heiner Friedrich all the time. I see Helen frequently, and I have close relationships with artists’ widows or children or those responsible for maintaining estates. In some cases our connections are so deep with artists that we have an incredible responsibility to their legacy, as a holder of a particular vision that only we have the capacity to really unfold.
Rabinow: When I started working at the Menil Collection, someone gave me a little rubber bracelet that had the letters WWDD, which stands for “What Would Dominique Do?” The point was, if ever in doubt, I need to channel Dominique de Menil. Before I began the job, I went around to all the museums in New York to talk to directors to get their advice, and Colin Bailey, who had just started as the director of the Morgan Library & Museum, shocked me when he said, “You’re going to run an institution with a strong founding family—just like the Morgan.” I thought, “Just like the Morgan?!” You never really lose family—it can be 100 years out and you are still feeling it.
Morgan: In our case, I find it absolutely necessary to touch the pulse of someone like Heiner in particular or to hear from Helen about the thinking and the work that they put into Dia’s projects. At The Lightning Field, it’s extraordinary to think that your founders were actually out there, physically digging.
Rabinow: It’s the Menil’s 30th anniversary this year and I came to it full-circle because, the summer between college and graduate school, I volunteered when it had just opened. I was putting the archives into plastic sleeves, sitting in a closet basically and falling in love with letters between Max Ernst and René Magritte and Dominique and John de Menil. People always talk about the amazing legacy of John and Dominique coming from Paris to Houston, which in the late ’40s was a cow town and, with the advent of air conditioning and the energy industry, all of a sudden took off as a city.
ARTnews: What did you glean from your early experience working at the Menil?
Rabinow: I loved the contacts [between the artists and their collectors] and I loved the deep looking. The Menil is a group of buildings and parks and green spaces within a residential neighborhood. Everything responds to these 100-year-old bungalows and the way that the foliage and canopies are higher than the buildings—the scale of it is residential, and the idea behind it is: regardless of your financial ability, whether you have one dollar in your pocket or one million, you deserve to live with art. Everyone is welcome. We don’t charge for the parks or the museums. Everyone deserves to have art as part of their lives—that permeated me, and I believe that to my core.
ARTnews: Jessica, you came to Dia by way of London’s Tate Modern and, before that, a few museums in America. What most prepared you for your current role?
Morgan: I was in New York a lot because my first husband was based here. In 1991, when I first arrived, there were very few places to see contemporary art of Dia’s sort. So the Dia Center for the Arts [as its exhibition space on West 22nd Street was known from 1987 to 2004] made a huge impression on me, with the journey to get there through the wilderness of Chelsea. At that time you would only see snatches of the collection, so it was really with Beacon’s opening that I realized that Dia was a collecting institution beyond The New York Earth Room and The Broken Kilometer [both by Walter De Maria] and all the seminal sites. I remember going up the stairs to the Earth Room thinking somebody would tell me I wasn’t allowed in. It felt so extraordinary to go to this place, and I was totally fascinated by the people who worked there. They were reading! It was incredible.
ARTnews: When you started at Dia, you jettisoned some preexisting development plans for new exhibition space in Chelsea. In an era when a lot of museums are racing to build, why did you go in that direction?
Morgan: There were two lines of thought to that. One was that Dia had never built a new building, so why suddenly start? We’re in a city where we’re surrounded by fantastic industrial buildings, and one of the great pioneering moves of Heiner Friedrich was to come to lower Manhattan and realize that there were incredible spaces for showing art. I had no desire to depart from that history, and we happened to have three buildings in Chelsea, so the idea of not using them seemed illogical to me. Besides that, during my 25 years working in institutions, I have witnessed with new buildings what has often been a weight toward failure rather than success. The whole idea of creating good space for art is complicated and is often so utterly misunderstood. I feel that most of the time people get it wrong and you end up with a space that is either somehow proportionally incorrect or in conflict with the art that you’re showing. At Menil and Dia spaces, you have a real sense of concentration. You’re not confused or distracted. There’s a sense when you enter a space that you know exactly what that space is asking you to do, which is to concentrate on the work being presented.
Rabinow: That’s a similarity we share. Things are allowed to breathe. There’s always lots of space. There’s not a lot of didacticism on the walls to distract you. Every aspect of the Menil prepares the visitor to look. You traverse a landscape, walk into a lobby, walk down corridors, and then the light changes and you’re in. Most people are not even aware of the decompression that happens along the way, but by the time you get to look at art, you know why you’re there.
ARTnews: Is it true that the air conditioning for the building is housed elsewhere to allow for quietude?
Rabinow: It’s true—so you don’t get that hum or rumble.
ARTnews: How has it been for you moving from a large encyclopedic institution in New York to a more specific and idiosyncratic museum in Houston?
Rabinow: I loved working at the Met. But when I travel around the world and think about the kind of museums I enjoy the most, it’s ones that have an individual vision. The Menil is about as pure as a museum can be. Because we never charge admission, we have an obligation to program in a way that very few institutions can. There doesn’t have to be a show that brings people in. Financially, it makes no difference if one person comes or 30,000. We can take more risks, and that’s a huge liberty.
Morgan: That’s how it was with the Dia Center in Chelsea. If I saw another person there, it was an unusual day—and yet we all revere that history. What you’ve just said is so important, and it’s something we share: neither of our institutions nor our boards think about an exhibition program according to popularity, which is such a privilege. It shouldn’t be. One can easily say that any institution can turn around and follow the same path, but it’s difficult to get off a treadmill once it’s [started going] faster and faster and faster.
Rabinow: One of the matrices used to judge success for museums is attendance and what is raised at the gate. If you’re thinking about what is wrong with museums today, start there.
Morgan: It has to do with the economy of institutions as they grow, this gradual acceleration where the success of one exhibition leads to the desire for another that results in a fixation on at least one if not two exhibitions of that sort every year, and ultimately everything is judged on such a scale. I experienced that at Tate. You could do a show that you knew was a fantastic exhibition on so many levels—the catalogue, the research, significance in terms of introduction—but at the end of the day, in the back of your mind, even if you want to disregard it, the numbers are still so prevalent as a driving factor. It’s an evil that we’ve all created.
ARTnews: Given the license you both have, how do you balance being a steward for your institutional heritage and also steering toward the future? Jessica, some of your recent work has involved adding to the collection.
Morgan: When I arrived, we had fewer than 40 artists in the collection. And for 15 or 20 artists, we have entire retrospectives within the collection. So the idea of adding artists is a huge responsibility but also an opportunity, because it means we are putting them in a position where they’re understood in relation to big figures. I think there’s always been a slight misunderstanding around the artists who are part of Dia’s collection. They were many of the seminal figures during [the ’60s and ’70s], but they were also artists who had been shown at Heiner’s galleries as opposed to Konrad Fischer’s. There was a certain happenstance to it that was not the result of a pedagogical or philosophical position necessarily.
ARTnews: How have you tried to add to that history?
Morgan: That moment in time was complex. It’s really going back and looking at who are the figures we would like to bring in. Many of them are women, who were not part of the original canon that we supported. We have this incredible strength in German art because of Heiner, but what else was happening in Europe? And who are other artists who were close back then that we can pull together again? The pleasure it brings me is that we’re actually repositioning people to where I think they should be, elevating them and also drawing out correspondences that for multiple reasons have been lost over time.
ARTnews: How does the historical pull of Dia figure in the more contemporary work you do?
Morgan: Contemporary commissions remain vital to who we are. It’s important that they are by figures who are not necessarily being supported otherwise. We don’t need to replicate what’s happening at a commercial gallery or the institutions that now do a great job of showing contemporary art. Walter De Maria decided not to show in galleries at a certain point, and it was really only because of Dia and collectors like Robert Scull that he was able to work in the way he did. It was the same with Michael Heizer. There are artists today who are trying to produce work that is totally uncommercial, not necessarily out of a desire to be out of the market but simply because the work is not practical in the gallery system. It’s our job to think about who those artists are and what we can do with them—how we can encourage them to go visit Spiral Jetty and The Lightning Field and think about what happened there. Not that they have to make Land Art, but just to think about the ambition, the process, and the fact that many of these projects took years to complete. It’s increasingly hard to imagine—because of the distraction that every artist experiences now, and the demands on them—that someone would step away, like so many of our artists did, and say, “I’m not going to participate in that cycle of production—I’m going to focus on one or two projects that are incredibly important to me.” That’s the real challenge we face.
ARTnews: Rebecca, how does the new Drawing Institute figure into the Menil heritage?
Rabinow: The Drawing Institute was a concept inaugurated in 2008 with Bernice Rose’s show “How Artists Draw: Toward the Menil Drawing Institute and Study Center.” To me, it perfectly dovetails with the mission. There’s no culture that I know of globally where drawing is not innate. All you need is a stick and some dirt, and it’s something that people in every creative field engage in. There’s something intimate about a drawing and the way an artist can communicate to a visitor, and that very much speaks to some of the ideas behind the founding of the Menil.
ARTnews: What are some of the challenges you face in terms of fund-raising and drumming up action on your boards?
Morgan: In New York there are challenges around the fact that we tend not to do populist exhibitions. We tend not to do parties and events, and rarely even have openings—things that might attract a particular social component, which has become a large part of fund-raising. We tend to provide more content and intellectual activities. However, the flipside of that, the advantage, is that once you find people who are attracted to the institution, you tend to find people who are deeply engaged. An advantage we have is that we are spread out and involve people from different parts of the world who wouldn’t necessarily see themselves in a New York institution otherwise—because we’re not merely a New York institution. It’s exciting for them to think about a site in Kassel, Germany [The Vertical Earth Kilometer by Walter De Maria], or New Mexico [The Lightning Field]. And Dia is a concept as much as it is a series of different places. But of course it’s challenging. I think of something Glenn Lowry [director of the Museum of Modern Art] said at the AMDA conference—he said, essentially, we’re all on the verge of bankruptcy and we engage in high-level begging in order to survive.
ARTnews: How about at the Menil?
Rabinow: We’re just finishing the first capital campaign we’ve ever undertaken. I have learned to ask for money in my sleep. I would say ten years ago there was a popular belief that the de Menils gave their fortune to the collection and, therefore, it must be rich and didn’t need any help. Of course nothing could be further from the truth. There was an article in the New York Times a few years ago about the fate of new foundations and museums that people have been creating, but it’s very different to then make the transition to being a public institution. It’s difficult for a lot of places, and a lot of them fail. One of the challenges is to shape it in the public perception. The Menil is a public charity—not a privately run museum—and it is dependent on the generosity of folks who love it. As part of this capital campaign, we’re doing something we’ve never done before: we’re going to have some permanent donor signage in our campus. We’ve come up with a design that is subtle, the opposite of the famous wall of shame, but it will be an important reminder that the institution was begun by John and Dominique de Menil and has thrived because of the other people who have loved it, have nothing to do with the family, and believe that art should be for everyone.
ARTnews: Where does conservation and maintenance of works fall on the difficulty scale for fund-raising? The costs of maintaining something like The Lightning Field must be high.
Morgan: The best way to get people to support The Lightning Field is to get them to visit. But I would say, in general, what I’ve experienced is that we have been successful in raising money for endowment, which as everyone would say is the hardest money to raise. It’s about supporting the ethos of an institution.
Rabinow: It’s the non-sexy fund-raising.
Morgan: Yes, and yet somehow I feel people understand that it’s precisely that undergirding of stability that allows us to run very complicated sites. Most of them are free and, therefore, not income generating. And at The Lightning Field, the small fee to stay there overnight doesn’t support all the operations.
ARTnews: You’ve got to cover enchilada costs for those pre-made dinners for overnight guests.
Morgan: Exactly. A huge amount of what we do is actually maintaining buildings and facilities. Dia:Beacon is a 300,000-square-foot facility that was an old industrial building not intended to be a space for showing art, so efforts to maintain the quality of that space are huge. That’s the downside of using older buildings.
Rabinow: We just spent over a year restoring Barnett Newman’s Broken Obelisk, which had been offered to the city of Houston by John de Menil in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. The city would not take it, so he decided to put it by the Rothko Chapel. A note to all future collectors: don’t put steel sculptures in a reflecting pool. Those are not the best conditions for it. [Laughs] But hundreds of thousands of dollars and a year later, it’s in good shape and back in place.
ARTnews: The de Menils and the founders of Dia collected with such an intense reverence and spiritual regard for art. How much of that culture of collecting remains, in your experience? Do you see it in the art world currently?
Rabinow: I see it occasionally, but it’s not what I read about. What seems to be exciting in the papers are auction prices and that an entire graduating class of some art school has already signed up with galleries. It’s a much more commercial art world than it was decades ago. The de Menils were friendly with a lot of artists, and when I read letters from them I don’t get the sense of a gallery system working the way it does today.
Morgan: I can think of people who are passionate and engaged with supporting individual artists, which is important. For both of our institutions, beyond the fact that the founders were collecting, they saw themselves as philanthropists supporting artists who might otherwise not be able to produce the work they were doing. There are still those thinkers who support artists even against the expectation of receiving anything in return. But yes, it’s a completely different environment.
Rabinow: Those people still exist, but I think one quality of those people is humility and the lack of a need for attention, so they may be off the radar.
Morgan: I do think in many ways that Europe is in a different position. Because of government funding, there’s a different understanding of the relationship with supporting the arts and involving the arts within the community. Britain moved in another direction during the time that I was there, but in Germany, where we have strong ties, there are still many collectors who have close relationships with artists and who see themselves in that role, where they are not interested in sales prices or a rising-star relationship in the media.
ARTnews: Is that most prevalent in Germany or in Europe in general?
Morgan: I would say Europe in general, but you can also draw a parallel with other parts of the world, like Latin America. The situation in Brazil, for instance, is completely fascinating because there’s an incredibly rich art scene over multiple generations, and there’s not only a pride but also a real sense of engagement with younger artists’ practices and wanting to see artists go further even if they won’t necessarily have a successful career outside of Brazil.
ARTnews: How do you feel about the future of institutions of the scale and scope that Dia and the Menil Collection represent? As certain museums and galleries swell in size, what are the prospects for institutions of your kind?
Rabinow: I remember reading a case study in the Harvard Business Review about how art institutions, when they’re midsize, have the greatest tendency to fail, because everyone, including trustees, is expecting programming at the scale of the largest of institutions—but with the staff size and the budget of a smaller one. So it’s midsize institutions that are most at risk. That said, speaking from the Menil, I have the rosiest of predictions for the future in part the people who care about it. It’s important that there [be] different kinds of opportunities and spaces to support artists and share different kinds of work. There’s a place for mammoth museums and there’s a place for private collections, but there’s also something special about having unique spaces.
Morgan: I don’t worry about it at all. I think one of the things our institutions share is that we’re clear about who we are. I have no doubt, when I wake up in the morning, what would be right or wrong for Dia programmatically, which is a rare situation to be in. On top of that, there is, in the culture generally, a shift toward a desire for experiences that are more unique, more personal, against the gradual consummation of our lives through technology. There is a desire for a different type of museum-going experience clearly not about shopping or just consuming our surroundings, which we can increasingly see in larger institutions. At Dia, most of our spaces require a journey, a pilgrimage to reach an environment that has a different quality to it. I think that will be more important to people rather than less.
Rabinow: Both of these institutions are welcoming to anyone who makes the effort to come to them, but there’s not something for everyone. There is, however, something for someone who wants to be there.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of ARTnews on page 18 under the title “Jessica Morgan & Rebecca Rabinow.”