The Quixotic Quest for Growth, Non-Profit Edition

Carol Vogel reports on Philippe Vergne, the new director of Dia:

Among Mr. Vergne’s biggest challenges will be to find a permanent exhibition space in New York City for Dia, a nonprofit institution devoted to contemporary art…

Mr. Vergne, 42, said he believed Dia could rally and hold a more important place than ever in the art world. “I’ve always been a big fan of Dia,” he said. “It’s a place with an incredible history and is different than the traditional museum model. The chance to take it to a new chapter is exciting.” …

Mr. Vergne said he hoped to fortify programming at Dia:Beacon, which opened in 2003, so that it will become a vibrant site for special exhibitions…

I couldn’t help but be reminded of Evan Newmark’s blog entry on Les Moonves, and more generally of the idea that the CEOs of public companies are hamstrung by an often ill-advised desire to achieve higher growth at almost any cost.

Of all the arts organizations in the world which don’t need to "rally" and be "a more important place than ever" and "become a vibrant site for special exhibitions", I’d say that Dia was pretty much at the top of the list. What Dia is magnificently good at is doing very boring, very un-vibrant things like looking after Walter De Maria’s “New York Earth Room” and “Broken Kilometer” in Manhattan. Its Beacon outpost is pretty much perfect as a permanent home for the very specific artists whom Dia collects: nowhere does Dan Flavin look better, or Blinky Palermo, or Gerhard Richter, or Sol LeWitt.

Dia:Beacon, especially, was always viewed as a low-traffic temple of Minimal art, one which is a relatively easy (but not too easy) pilgrimage from New York City. Yes, there was always going to be a burst of publicity when it opened, but to get a real feel for the ambition of the place all you need to do is look at Robert Irwin’s parking lot, which is much more interested in looking good than in packing people in.

One of the key achievements of former Dia director Michael Govan was that he didn’t just manage to build Dia:Beacon; he also managed to give it a large enough endowment that it can continue to operate indefinitely without having to rely on support or enthusiasm from the public at large. Dia’s great strength through the years is that it has been serene in its convictions. It does what it does, and if you love that, great, and if you don’t, that’s fine too.

To use a stock-market analogy, Dia is a low-growth utility. It’s great if you like that sort of thing, but the CEO of such an operation is basically in charge of keeping it ticking over, not reinventing it or trying to make it grow. That’s why I’m worried about pledges "to fortify programming" and the like. It’s almost impossible to break Dia by neglect; the only way to do so is by trying to improve it. Let’s hope that Mr Vergne isn’t too ambitious.

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