“For most of our visitors now, it’s even more extreme to have this experience of being without communication devices, to be left without a vehicle, to be truly in isolation”—Jessica Morgan
Charlotte Burns: Hello and welcome to In Other Words where we discuss everything you ever wanted to know about the art world but didn’t know who to ask. I’m your host, Charlotte Burns, and on today’s episode I am joined by Jessica Morgan, the director of the Dia Art Foundation.
We have a wide-ranging conversation about Dia, that much beloved American institution, which is so associated with the great Land artists of the ‘60s and ‘70s. We discuss fundraising in the US and the UK and talk a bit about the problems with judging museum success by attendance figures.
Before we dive in, just a reminder to check out our latest In Other Words newsletter, our back to school issue featuring our forecasts for the upcoming season. If you’re not already a subscriber, be sure to sign up at artagencypartners.com. Now, to today’s episode.
Joining me today is Jessica Morgan, who since 2015 has been the director of the Dia Art Foundation, which is a much-loved arts organization with locations in Beacon, Manhattan and the American West.
Before moving to New York for this role, Jessica was the Daskalopoulos curator of international art at Tate in London. She was also the artistic director of the 10th Gwangju Biennale in 2014. Jessica, thank you very much for joining us.
Jessica Morgan: Thank you for having me. Delighted to be here.
Charlotte Burns: I thought we would talk a little bit about what you’ve been doing, first of all, since you arrived at Dia. You were in the news a couple of months ago with the announcement of plans to renovate and expand Dia’s existing industrial spaces in Chelsea, Soho and Beacon. Why the decision to stay put and renovate and expand as opposed to open new buildings, which was the previous plan? What made you decide to change course?
Jessica Morgan: It was a process, really, that came out of programming. We hadn’t used those spaces in Chelsea for a good decade. So, my instinct when we got there was, first of all, surprised to know that we had three buildings on West 22nd Street and then instinctually just felt, well let’s start doing something there and feel out what exactly that will look like and feel like and, for us, what do we need. What do artists think we need, what do artists think of the spaces that we already have.
Charlotte Burns: What did they say to you?
Jessica Morgan: I think, in general, everybody was very wedded to certain qualities that they identify with Dia.
Charlotte Burns: Industrial spaces, I’m guessing.
Jessica Morgan: Industrial spaces. Architecture that steps back, but also natural light. As single-story buildings, it’s very unusual actually in Manhattan to have natural light in gallery spaces. That, I must say, was something that people kept coming back to, which is: don’t build up, you’ll lose the natural light, you know.
Charlotte Burns: That’s so interesting.
Jessica Morgan: Yeah, so it wasn’t necessarily what I wanted to hear frankly. You spend some time thinking about big plans, grand ambitions, but actually—
Charlotte Burns: What were those?
Jessica Morgan: Well, we have three buildings; one of them is a taller building with six stories, which is where our offices are. My initial thought was: let’s take that building back. Now, I won’t bore you with this because New York building codes are completely arcane, and there are all kinds of complications in that neighborhood, but that wasn’t possible for a number of reasons. Re-looking at these buildings, I think what was really important for us was hearing from the artists, definitely, but then also for me, realizing how much we wanted to do in Beacon and undertaking that and in Bridgehampton and thinking about, okay what are the additional sites that we want to add.
We acquired Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels, but that was something that we began working on as soon as I got there. And thinking, well the totality of Dia is really what’s important. We have 11 sites currently.
Charlotte Burns: So many.
Jessica Morgan: It’s a lot, and we try to really think about, well what more can we do with every one of these places, whether it’s bringing more attention to it, whether it’s about conservation, whether it’s about expanding in some cases or just improving the facilities, because at Beacon there was a lot to do.
Actually, at the end of the day, what we want in Chelsea is a great footprint in order to be able to present the artists that we want to work with, but we’re really not looking for an enormous space. We have a 300,000 sq ft facility in Dia:Beacon, which is quite a project to keep going. Really, it was more about the specificity of the space and I think that’s exactly what the artists were telling us, which was: it’s not about space per se, it’s about a Dia space.
And then of course being Dia, with this fantastic and bizarre history in many ways, it turned out we had other spaces that we weren’t using.
Charlotte Burns: I thought this was so funny when I was researching this interview. Your surprise came across in several previous interviews you’d given. You were like: “We found more spaces!”
Jessica Morgan: Almost every week I think my first month there, somebody would drop that we actually owned a piece of land in outside of Beacon or, by the way, did you know that we had this space on Wooster Street that we were renting out to whatever it was at that time. It’s now the Shade Store. But I thought, well how much more interesting is it for us to go back and use these spaces—many of which actually were originally used as Dia spaces. The Wooster Street space has an incredibly storied past. Many people talk about the experience of opening the door on this little, beautiful scaled, street front space on Wooster Street and discovering Barnett Newman inside there.
Charlotte Burns: It’s so interesting because despite the fact that Beacon is so large, there’s something so intimate about Dia experiences, I think, and it’s quite interesting at this time of mass expansion by galleries and museums that you’re reclaiming small spaces that are perhaps more intimate.
Jessica Morgan: Yes, and I suppose back to how we use space, which is always one artist, one space. So, it is very much about the voice of that individual dominating that interior or whatever it may be.
Charlotte Burns: Yeah.
Jessica Morgan: And, actually, those single artist spaces—whether it’s The New York Earth Room (1977) or Broken Kilometer (1979), which are both in Soho now—are for me, in some ways, the most distinct aspects of Dia. It’s like who else would, for 40 years, run a space—for free—in Chelsea that you can wander into and discover something as extraordinary as The New York Earth Room, and it’s—
Charlotte Burns: Explain that to people who don’t know what that is.
Jessica Morgan: The New York Earth Room, which opened in 1977, is essentially a loft space that Walter De Maria—the artist who I sometimes refer to as the fourth founder of Dia in some ways because he was such an important figure in our history—he established this piece which, in fact, he had done before in Munich at one of our founder’s galleries, Heiner Friedrich, filled the space with earth. It’s a space that you can’t see in its totality when you stand in front of it, so there’s a slight mystery. It’s a landscape; it’s an interior earth work, you could say, but it’s very much a place of contemplation.
Charlotte Burns: It’s really an immersive space. You stand there in front of all this mound of dark earth and smell it, and it’s very—
Jessica Morgan: Very visceral.
Charlotte Burns: Yeah, very visceral experience.
Jessica Morgan: And completely unlike anything else, of course, that we see now.
Charlotte Burns: Also, totally incongruous in… it’s sort of shopping neighborhood right now. Obviously, it wasn’t the case when it was created; Soho was a very different beast in the ’70s than it is in 2018.
Jessica Morgan: It’s true, although you go back, and you read the… I love reading the criticism from the time of that piece, but also The Lightning Field (1977), which opened in fact in the same year—The Lightning Field which is another site that we run in New Mexico, which is also a work of Walter De Maria—and the outlandishness of it was as much the case then as it is now. You know, it’s never usual to encounter tons of earth inside a building.
Charlotte Burns: No, well you would hope not, generally. Although in this instance, of course, it’s appreciated.
I wanted to ask you as well. The total cost of the capital campaign is $78m, and in June you told a couple of publications that around $60m had already been raised, which you’d done quietly and discreetly and—importantly—successfully.
Dia has had a history of struggling to fundraise. In 2005 and ’13 it staged controversial auctions of work from the collection. In 2006, amid board disagreements, it lost a chief patron. And, around the time of the 2013 auction the previous director, Philippe Vergne, told The New York Times that resources were “finite”. How, just five years later, did you make things seem a little bit less finite and manage to fundraise successfully?
Jessica Morgan: Good question. I think hard work, at the end of the day. It’s very much related to program. It’s much easier to fundraise when you’re doing things and visibly in New York, which certainly helped. I mean—
Charlotte Burns: People had missed Dia very much in New York.
Jessica Morgan: Yeah, there had been some fantastic programs that Philippe and Yasmil [Raymond], the curator did. The Thomas Hirschhorn project, which I think was incredible, but it was in the Bronx; it was not directly in front of people in the location of our old site.
Charlotte Burns: Yeah.
Jessica Morgan: Once we had Chelsea up and running and reminding people of our presence and doing a great deal in Beacon, building the collection, I think there was a sense, certainly for the people who are supporting us now, that they understood what the future of the institution was and certainly what my mission and the curatorial mission has been; which was, on the one hand, about the collection and really feeling very firmly committed to the period of time that we have this incredible depth and breadth in, the 1960s and ’70s, and saying okay what else can we do here. There’s incredible opportunity, we’re missing huge numbers of artists who could take us—
Charlotte Burns: Add to the story.
Jessica Morgan: Take us in different directions, really revive a sort of thinking around that period and make it more complex. And, on the other hand, our commissions, they’re slow burns for a reason, they’re durational, they’re complex. Having those two very strong positions that the collection, the growth of the collection which hadn’t happened for more than a decade actually, that we hadn’t been acquiring work.
Charlotte Burns: Why was that? Was that just—
Jessica Morgan: I think there was a great deal of focus on contemporary, for good reason, because of the loss of this Chelsea space. There was a sense in which that was the area that we had to—
Charlotte Burns: Be more vital in.
Jessica Morgan: Yeah. For me, absolutely I agree, our job is to work with artists: Dia—the Greek word meaning “through”—we’re a conduit for artists; that’s how we see ourselves. On the one hand, the commissions are important, but on the other hand we have this incredible opportunity with the collection, which has become a kind of touchstone for so many people who want to learn about that period of time. And we have probably, par excellence, the most incredible place to show it.
What I saw when I arrived in Dia:Beacon, which was a surprise to me I must say, was that our audience is incredibly young, and so there was this vital sense of a future really, for an interest in that collection period.
Charlotte Burns: Yeah.
Jessica Morgan: I don’t think anybody comes up to Dia:Beacon and thinks I fancy a trip into the past. They come because all of the concerns of those works are still incredibly current, whether it’s space, architecture, light, process, vision: how to look better essentially, how to teach ourselves to experience work better through a visual acuity.
Charlotte Burns: I think I told you that when my come to Agnes moment, when I remember going to Dia:Beacon. Years ago, I was working for Anthony d’Offay who packed me off and said you have to go up and look at Dia:Beacon because that’s going to be the basis for what he was trying to do at the time, which he later succeeded in, which was building a collection of Artist Rooms, single rooms dedicated to one single artist. He said: “The only way you’ll understand this is to go to Dia:Beacon.”
I arrived to New York, which was very exciting, from London, and I caught the train from Grand Central, which was very grand as the name suggests, and then caught the train up through New York, which was an epic discovery for me anyway, in terms of the segregation you see as you travel up on that train to get to the Hudson. Then when you’re there, it’s that beautiful idyll that you think of 19th century American pictures, American landscape painting; and then you get up to Dia and you find the former… It was a former box factory?
Jessica Morgan: It was a Nabisco biscuit factory.
Charlotte Burns: Biscuit factory.
Jessica Morgan: It made the boxes, yeah.
Charlotte Burns: You have this calm, tranquil space in which to utterly concentrate. It’s not packed; attendance doesn’t seem to be a key focus, which we’ll also talk about, and that aspect of pilgrimage carries through in your experience of the work. And I remember standing in front of an Agnes Martin and understanding for the first time why people talked about Agnes Martin in the way that they did, that sort of reverential way. I became a follower, it was my, okay I’m on board with this now and forever will be a disciple, and it was only really possible through Dia. As was standing in front of those great Gerhard Richter gray works with the plexiglass in front and seeing myself reflected in the work and realizing that I always had habitually stood to the left of artworks, and I didn’t know why I did that, so I started standing more in the middle and seeing things differently.
It is sort of a silly thing to say, but it was profound for me; it profoundly changed my life. Made me want to move to New York, made me want to remain committed to contemporary art and gave me an idea that I could do something in this world, and all just through that train journey and then experience of Dia. It’s a very special place.
Jessica Morgan: That’s an amazing story. It is a really special place, and I think what, again, the surprise in a way for me was that it was so appealing to young people.
I’m a deeply institutional person: 12 years at Tate Modern and before that Institute of Contemporary of Art in Boston and MCA Chicago, and I sort of loved every place that I’ve worked, and you take on board so deeply the ethos and the mission of that particular place. But when I arrived at Dia and there were things that are absolutely taken for granted in most museums about how that experience should run, i.e. way finding, we have none. Wall text, we don’t do that. It sort of slightly, of course, took me aback. And I thought, how are people responding to this? There must be outrage and uproar.
Charlotte Burns: Confused, yeah.
Jessica Morgan: Of course, meanwhile we have absolutely no negative responses to those things. If you want to read something, we probably have more text than any museum does, but it’s tucked away. You don’t have to, you can choose. Do you want to read it or not.
Charlotte Burns: That’s part of the specialness of the experience though—
Jessica Morgan: And you wander.
Charlotte Burns: —it’s the sense of finding things.
Jessica Morgan: Yes.
Charlotte Burns: It’s discovery.
Jessica Morgan: It’s your place.
Charlotte Burns: Yeah, I think that’s really important.
Jessica Morgan: Again, so back to what are these characteristics that run across the spaces. They are spaces of discovery. I think the people who love The Lightning Field feel that it’s something you go with very small group of people: it’s the journey, again. I mean the trip through the landscape, which frankly I think for most of those Land art works it’s about getting you to that place in order to see the extraordinary context that you’re in.
Charlotte Burns: Explain The Lightning Field to people who don’t know.
Jessica Morgan: It’s a site in New Mexico, in the Southwestern corner of New Mexico, which is a very large area of land which is occupied by steel poles, which are one mile by one kilometer, and adjacent to that is a small cabin, a settler’s cabin, which is a typical type of architecture that you would have seen in that landscape.
If you want to visit The Lightning Field, you make a booking. It’s now ferociously popular, so I’m afraid the reservations go in about two minutes after midnight mountain time on January 31st, but it’s well worth trying. You will arrive, be directed to a place called Quemado in New Mexico and be picked up by our team there who will drive you out to The Lightning Field. Six people at maximum are spending the night out there, and you’ll spend an afternoon in the field, walking around the field, having a communal meal together, spending the night and waking up in the morning. The sunset and the sunrise are both extraordinary moments where you have this visual meeting point really of this remarkable natural landscape with this almost other worldly manmade artwork, which is placed there in an almost incomprehensible how this came to be in that landscape.
De Maria always talks about the fact that the landscape actually differs in height because it’s such a large area, quite dramatically, but the tips of the poles are all aligned at exactly the same point, which he described as if you could imagine an enormous sheet of glass sitting on top of this piece.
Charlotte Burns: Wow.
Jessica Morgan: It as an image I can never get out of my mind whenever I’m there. Surrounded by mountains. You may see lightning, you may not. I think almost whenever I’ve been I’ve seen lightning all around the field but never on the field, but it’s really more about this—
Charlotte Burns: Experience.
Jessica Morgan: Again, a very… Rather like The Earth Room, this is very meditative, taking you out of a place. Of course, for most of our visitors now, it’s even more extreme to have this experience of being without communication devices, to be left without a vehicle, to be truly in isolation.
Charlotte Burns: Marooned.
Jessica Morgan: Yeah, but a brilliant work and a work that was choreographed in such a way, at a point in time when we don’t necessarily think of art as working to that degree and thinking about every stage of the journey and every moment of the experience and every… Even down to how the furniture in the interior of the cabin looks. I find that so moving actually, that an artist was so aware of how every one of those impacts would affect the way in which—
Charlotte Burns: Your experience.
Jessica Morgan: Yeah. It’s an incredible work. I think truly for me the sort of pinnacle of Dia in a way.
Charlotte Burns: Yeah, I think so. It’s so associated with Dia.
I wanted to ask you a question about Land art. How do you engage with that history and do you have any plans to commission new works? Are there artists you have in mind that could meaningfully create those kinds of intimate, maroon-you-from-modernity experiences?
Jessica Morgan: We did quite recently, actually. Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzdilla did an incredible piece in Puerto Rico—
Charlotte Burns: Yes, oh yeah.
Jessica Morgan: —in a 100-meter-high cave in a land conservancy area. It was a really remarkable work, and I think they understood exactly the type of questions that, of course, we would ask now of somebody who’s thinking about making a Land art project, which was very much to do with energy impact on the environment.
The piece involved a Dan Flavin artwork called Puerto Rican light (1965), which we installed in this cave and it was powered by solar light, solar panels. Again, it was the journey, it was taking you through a very particular landscape in Puerto Rico.
That was a very remarkable project, and I think that is exactly the kind of thing we would love to explore more. It wasn’t possible to make that permanent; it wasn’t our land; it was a complicated piece to maintain, but I think it’s definitely something that the top of the curatorial agenda in a way.
It’s funny because we have this conversation so often, but when you think about the legacy of these Land art projects and how few have really stood the test of time, in a way, it’s also perhaps optimistic to think that we’ll have a long list of future projects—but I do hope that we’ll have a few that will come out of the coming years.
Charlotte Burns: The project you were talking about in Puerto Rico, in my old job, at The Art Newspaper, the former editor of the paper, Cristina Ruiz, traveled to it and wrote a great article about this sort of wild experience of watching bats flying around the Dan Flavin and how it’s completely discombobulating and quite beautiful at the same time.
The other question I wanted to ask you it this idea of conservation. Were Land art works meant to exist in perpetuity and be conserved, or is there a sense of in any of the artists you’ve worked with of letting them be enveloped by the land which they’re made from?
Jessica Morgan: I think each project is different, is the short answer, I mean The Lightning Field requires a very specific aesthetic and quite pristine quality really, otherwise it would lose its integrity, and so maintaining that is incredibly important to us.
Spiral Jetty by Robert Smithson, which is another one of the sites that we maintain in Utah, is a very different question and actually something that we have been talking about a great deal over the last few years since the water level went down. It was invisible for many years underneath the water of the Great Salt Lake, and now exacerbated by the drought, unfortunately, that’s been hitting that area for some time. It’s been visible for some time, which means people are walking on it, to our horror. Sometimes people take bits of it with them, which is really a shame. We obviously encourage people to leave it exactly as they found it. It’s a question for us, with an artist who explored ideas of entropy, what exactly was the intent.
It’s something that we, in fact, intend to focus on bringing… convening, really, the people who are the most thoughtful and knowledgeable about his work in the coming year to talk about what, if anything, should be done.
Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels, which we recently acquired, which is also in Utah, is a concrete work, it’s in incredible condition. It’s something that we’ll monitor very closely, we’ll have our conservator visit probably on a yearly, if not bi-yearly, basis, and keep a keen eye on it—because like The Lightning Field, it’s a sculpture with a very particular form, and it would frankly cease to exist if were not in the shape it is in.
Charlotte Burns: Both of those are modern materials then, in natural landscape, which is a different thing than a natural landscape from the natural landscape.
Jessica Morgan: True. Most of these artists, they’ve done far more research than you might necessarily have thought they would’ve when they were working on these projects, so there’s a lot of thought that’s gone into it.
It is a fascinating question, and I think there are certain projects which we have yet to have public access to. Michael Heizer’s City, which I think will be a really interesting one to think about. Michael, I know, has revisited the materials that he’s used over the years and replaced different elements, thinking about longevity and the maintenance of the piece.
So, it will depend entirely on the artist. I think Michael even has slightly shifted his position on Double Negative, which is a work that has eroded over the years. I think it’s something that he might even consider revisiting.
Charlotte Burns: That’s interesting.
Jessica Morgan: Certainly while the artists are here to talk to us about it, it’s imperative for us that we have as much documentation about that as possible.
Charlotte Burns: Yeah, because, of course, materials change, like with Dan Flavin the light bulbs are of limited availability, so you have to rethink how to keep that work alive.
Let’s talk a little bit about your collecting. You’ve been focusing on artists of the 1960s and ‘70s in terms of Dia’s collection. You’ve especially been championing female figures, and your curatorial team is entirely female, and I thought that was definitely unusual and wondered why that was important to you.
Jessica Morgan: I think, quite simply, in terms of the collection, there were just so many figures from that period of time who were not in a collection. It was just obvious that this was a place to begin. Many of them with us and able to… in the case of Dorothea Rockburne, we’ve been undertaking a really major project of having her revisit and remake installations that were ephemeral that she had made in the late 1960s and early ‘70s that I had seen on the front cover of Artforum and felt frustrated that I would never experience this in my lifetime—and here was an opportunity. I always feel this at Dia, that I’m so lucky to be in that position: to work with someone, to go back to that moment and remake these works—which were intended to be remade. They were works that were shown and unfortunately very rarely commissioned again, let’s say.
The project with Dorothea has been one that’s been going on for a number of years now. With Dorothea, there are wall-based works that I’ve only seen in reproduction, and in fact, even then poor black and white ones from a small gallery publication, but she had no major publication—which is another part of our work, so we’ll be producing real, proper studies on artists who should have 20 or 30 books on them, and actually only have one. It’s absolutely shocking to me. It’s been thrilling, really.
Part of it’s incredibly selfish; I want to see this work, and we can make it happen.
Charlotte Burns: Why not then.
Jessica Morgan: I think, maybe again back to sort of what is distinctive about Dia, we have the desire to work with somebody over a very long period of time. When I was at Tate, there were thousands of artists in the collection. Many of them were close to us. It’s incomparable to the way that we work with artists at Dia, where it’s really a kind of lifetime commitment—and taking on that type of project is very hard for most institutions to do, but for us, it really feels the right way.
It’s not about bringing a representation of that artist into the collection and then moving onto the next thing, it’s about, okay, now we’ve started to journey, here’s point A, what are all the different—
Charlotte Burns: Where do we go next?
Jessica Morgan: —stops on the road, yeah.
Charlotte Burns: You’ve spoken of your frustration—and this is a quote—you said you had: “a frustration with the rhythm of an art world that’s constantly escalating. More, more, more, and faster, faster, faster. Collections are being built by hoovering up artworks without really thinking. Here we don’t want to do ten projects in a year. We want to do two, really well.”
That idea of speed is really interesting. Like you say, you’ve been in very large institutions, I’m sure that there were many more projects being worked on at once. Plus, meanwhile, we’re now in a very event-based moment with biennials, triennials, fairs, auctions; there’s always something. Do you feel that—I don’t think you’re alone in that frustration—when you’ve spoken about this, do you feel people are welcoming of a change in pace and rhythm?
Jessica Morgan: Artists definitely. I think one of the main reasons why people are so keen to work with us is they know that their work will be on view for a long period of time. The shortest amount of time that we do anything is usually nine months, which is for most institutions—
Charlotte Burns: A human child.
Jessica Morgan: Yeah. I think it’s incredibly important. We want people to see things over a period of time; not to come once but to come many times, and I guess what’s been gratifying is seeing that that’s actually true. You know, when you have Robert Ryman on display in Chelsea for nine months, you have artists like Brice Marden telling you that they came every week during the run—
Charlotte Burns: That’s really interesting.
Jessica Morgan: —which is incredibly gratifying. I think in terms of the collection, I had the most incredible experience at Tate as being somebody who began as an exhibition curator and ended up as a collection curator. And that sounds very banal, but actually it was a very deep—
Charlotte Burns: It’s a big shift.
Jessica Morgan: —shift, yeah, mentally, and I think I understood that actually, by the time I left there, if you’re a museum, the collection is at the heart of the museum, and there is so much that would then influence the entire being of that institution, if you allow it to. I think that is what happened at Tate. The collection came to dominate the exhibition program, it’s the right away around. It should have been that way around. The difference with Dia, of course, is that we’re able to go so much deeper.
Charlotte Burns: Obviously all of this is possible if it’s financed. Something you and I had spoken about at some stage in the past was this idea of the funders responding to the distinctness of Dia. So, rather than trying to be another contemporary institution that’s sort of chasing the hottest artist before they become too expensive, to really double down on what Dia’s mission is. Do you think that has been key to the fundraising?
Jessica Morgan: Definitely. Really, most of all, understanding that we do have a framework that we’re working with, and it definitely means that we’re not everything to everyone, but that’s okay. And naturally, there are all kinds of incredible institutions on New York—my God, it’s overwhelming how many great places there are that are doing other aspects of program that are not right for us because it simply doesn’t make sense with our mission. But being incredibly clear about “this is the path we’re on, and we’re sticking with it” I think is very reassuring to people. They want to know that they’re establishing a relationship with an institution that is not about to suddenly veer in a completely different direction on a whim.
Charlotte Burns: Attendance figures so often drive decision making, and that’s something I want to talk to you about. There aren’t that many facts and figures in the art world in general. Attendance is one constant metric that can be used for measuring success—but it’s really become the dominant means of measuring success in institutions. There are rankings of best attended and least attended.
That can be indicative of public reception to shows and can help predict where interest will be, but it can be problematic in that perhaps people take fewer risks on unknown artists or more adventurous exhibitions that perhaps may not receive the same number of bums on seats. What are your thoughts on that?
Jessica Morgan: I do think that it’s resulted in a narrowing of program across the board in many cases. I think, fortunately, many institutions fight against that and do marvelous projects with probably something that their marketing department would tell them is going to be a disaster.
We’re certainly not alone in fighting that trend, but I think it’s no way to begin thinking about how you program. One should always be thinking about what’s true to the place that you’re at and what is urgent that you need to be doing for multiple reasons.
We try never to begin a project thinking about popularity, which is not to say that we don’t care about people coming. Of course, we’re thrilled that people seem to be appreciating all of our sites more and more and that attendance is going up. But it’s a very dangerous, slippery slope, and I’ve been at institutions where I’ve seen that happen and it does affect your thinking. Even if you imagine that you’re somehow retaining one foot outside of that, before too long, it’s really at the height of everybody’s concern, I suppose, as you begin to look at the program for the coming years.
It’s been an incredible joy for me, actually, to work in an institution—
Charlotte Burns: Liberating, I imagine.
Jessica Morgan: Totally liberating, to feel like I’ve jumped off a treadmill, for a start. I mean, back to the question of speed, which I think is part of that. Sort of “more and more” on every front, more people, more program.
Charlotte Burns: More art, more space.
Jessica Morgan: To not feel that this is a priority and not a priority for my board, which is wonderful. I think they’re incredibly enlightened and understanding when they became involved with Dia that it was about being at a place that’s not the starting point. I feel like I never had a single conversation with anyone that has been about “why don’t we show X because we’ll bring in a certain number of people”.
I think also what’s been very satisfying for the board is to see that we’ve pioneered artists who nobody was talking about, and we’ve had an incredible response and the artists are thrilled. We’ve had incredible gifts, I would say, as well. Again, back to our mission, we’re doing the right thing and it’s having wonderful results as well, so it’s certainly not that we’re concerned about any of this.
Charlotte Burns: It’s also if everybody starts looking at the metrics, then broad taste will always be broad taste, but then as those broad tastes shift, you will have everybody doing the same and then people will be looking for fresh things—which sort of seems to be a moment in time that we’re actually at now: that people say they’d like to see fresh things. And I think that’s very much a conversation that also museum professionals seem to be having.
Jessica Morgan: Yes, and I want to go to institutions that are distinct. I have to say it’s one of the things that moving—I lived in the states for 10 years in the 1990s and moved away for 12 years at Tate, and then to come back again, I relish those places that have incredible individuality.
Someone was saying to me the other day, it was an interesting conversation that I won’t name the institution because I’ve actually forgotten what it was. It was somewhere where they were setting out to de-access a number of works—of course, always a controversial thing to do—but they were actually de-accessioning works that did not fit with their mission, and their mission was to be a local institution. And I thought: “How fantastic”, wow, somebody who’s actually willing to give up—there were quite major pieces—in order to stick to a mission, which might seem parochial but actually isn’t. It’s about being distinct and about having a very clear sense of your identity, of your community, of your particular project. That’s what I would love to see more of, a strength in: “We’re different and that’s great and fine”, you know?
Charlotte Burns: We’ve been doing a huge research project which will be coming out shortly after this podcast, looking at acquisitions and exhibitions of work by African American artists over the past 10 years. What’s really interesting is beyond the data, things that the data doesn’t tell us, when we’ve interviewed people after we had the analysis in, was that people were saying: “Well, a lot of artists that you’re now seeing on lists here and there, the strongest holdings of them are in very small institutions that you would never expect that had a mission of supporting local artists.”
Jessica Morgan: The other part to this is that we should be visiting those places.
Charlotte Burns: Right.
Jessica Morgan: It’s like, come on. We don’t have to go to the same 10 places all the time, and we need to value all of these very independent-thinking spaces that are around the country. Again, sort of in the ‘90s, I feel there was much more impetus to travel throughout the US and visit those sites in St. Louis or in Portland or wherever it may be. And that was actually urgent, it’s something that you really should do. Something, that has been lost a little bit, I think, with perhaps the younger generation or, I didn’t know, across the board.
Charlotte Burns: But maybe there was a coalescence around more market-level events because they’re very effective. I remember curator saying this to me a few years ago, and there was one art fair I went to. It was a particularly poor edition. I said: “Do you feel happy spending your travel budget on this?” And they said: “Yeah, because I’m not here for the art, I’m here for all the funders that I can talk to and the people I can talk to about loans. It’s a very effective use of my time.” And I think that’s strategically a very good point.
Jessica Morgan: Yes and no.
Charlotte Burns: But it doesn’t mean that you’re seeing the best art though, because of course it’s not the purpose of an art fair to stage those shows. It’s a different beast than being a small organization off the beaten track that can do hidden things.
I wanted to talk to you about a slightly different thing now. You’d mentioned your time in America. Before Tate, you were a chief curator at the ICA in Boston and before that, a curator at the MCA in Chicago. And now you’re back in America. I thought it would be interesting to ask you how you perceive the differences between the two countries’ cultural systems. What do you think are the big differences?
Jessica Morgan: Hard to summarize. When I left the US and moved back to the UK, I was very comfortable with fundraising. It had always been part of my job. At the ICA, we were in a huge campaign for a new building, the Diller Scofidio building, which they did an incredible job with after I left. But, you know, I was very used to asking people for large amounts of money as well as curating eight exhibitions a year.
I went to Tate where there was very little fundraising happening, and I made it very clear that I was happy to do that. And I would say that in the time that I was there, we went from—the graph would be almost vertical—in terms of the amount of fundraising that had to happen and probably happened because people like myself, Donna de Salvo, who of course was American and had come from America to Tate, were pioneering because we wanted to see better acquisitions happen. And in some cases, more programmatic strength as well. And so, it became, almost overnight, something that expanded at Tate.
Now peculiarly for me I suppose, coming back to Dia now, I almost feel in an institution that has more what we might call European qualities. I think probably what happened, in the UK anyway, is that it was such a sharp turn in terms of cultural understanding of fundraising that I think there were perhaps somewhat less checks in place, because it was sort of a new experience, whereas America has a very sophisticated and very long history of patronage for pretty much all the institutions. And so, I think there’s a much better understanding, perhaps, for those who are involved in them about what the role is at the institution. So, it was a funny experience, I suppose, to come back and actually feel a little bit more “Old World”, in a way from the sort of Wild West of what had been taking—
Charlotte Burns: What are the kind of check and balances?
Jessica Morgan: I think trustees have a very clear understanding of what their role is in the US, and obviously we didn’t have that role at Tate. The trustees are government appointed positions, but there were other fundraising bodies where they were acquisition committees or the Tate council and so on, some of which were funding related. I think was a big learning curve for everyone to understand how does this work? What are you giving, what are you getting, what are we asking, what do we want?
Whereas in the US, I think there is a much broader understanding. People are often involved in multiple institutions from somewhere providing healthcare to somewhere that is an arts organization, a library, a university. And so, they’ve had a really incredible education in sort of how to be a patron, let’s say. It’s just a very different conversation.
I think that will happen in the UK. I mean, that’s to talk about it from a fundraising perspective, let’s say.
Charlotte Burns: Which is a key part of it, I think.
Jessica Morgan: It is a key part of it because it affects—I firmly believe that economy is at the heart of every… It’s sort of the bedrock of every aspect of our culture as well.
Charlotte Burns: Well, you talk about a collection and that is such an important part of it. That same trip to New York. I think part of my come to Agnes moment was that you’re seeing in America so many more examples of A plus works by A plus artists, and it’s like the very best works and that is such a difference. Obviously, every museum tries to do that, but it does come down to finance.
Jessica Morgan: Yes. Many of those Agnes Martins were gifted to us, which is, you know, truly incredible.
Charlotte Burns: Yeah.
Jessica Morgan: Of course, it affects the way the way you program, of course it affects the way you govern. I think there are many things I miss in Europe, I must say, as well. And perhaps that, again, comes back down to funding. There’s a collegiality between institutions, which is really wonderful. I think there’s a real sense of interest and constant communication across colleagues, which I’d love to see more of in the US. I think it does happen, but there could only be more of it in a way.
It feels like it’s something that’s opening up much more, and I’d love to feel that we’re moving towards a situation where it’s more about collaboration and working together than perhaps it might have been in the past. It’s something I’ve really enjoyed, so trying to think about how can we do that at Dia.
Charlotte Burns: What are you thinking about that? Do you have any concrete steps?
Jessica Morgan: I suppose we’ve had the Mary Corse project where the Whitney was also having an exhibition. I think we both realized that this is great. You know, it’s for Mary. It’s the most incredible thing to have both of these projects. They’re very different: different institutions, different styles, different presentations. One’s a collection display, the other is an exhibition. But at the end of the day, it’s about—
Charlotte Burns: Complimentary cross-programming.
Jessica Morgan: We actually have another moment like that with the Whitney this fall.
Charlotte Burns: I was going to say, is this you and Donna working together?
Jessica Morgan: Donna used to be a Dia curator, so there’s definitely history there, but she has a Warhol retrospective and we’re showing the Shadows in the city, which is actually mainly because she very much wanted to have them in the show and it’s an enormous 102 painting cycle. So, it would have taken up at least a floor of the Whitney.
Charlotte Burns: Yeah, it would have taken up one of those entire floors.
Jessica Morgan: So, we wanted to find somebody to show it in the city, but we have great neighbors in Chelsea. I’d love to see us doing more in whatever way we can to work together, particularly in regard to our distinctions, not about merging, but about, okay, what is it that we can do in one way that you do in another way? And so, people can benefit from seeing the difference as well, you know?
Charlotte Burns: Yeah, stronger in numbers.
Jessica Morgan: Yeah.
Charlotte Burns: You’ve previously said that you never felt particularly English. You said: “I was always interested in not being one of them,” which I thought was interesting as a fellow expat. Do you still feel that way? Why did you feel that way? What did you mean when you said that?
Jessica Morgan: Very Irish mother, Welsh father. The Irishness definitely sets you apart.
Charlotte Burns: My family’s Irish too, actually.
Jessica Morgan: Yeah. I was very aware when I was young that Irish were not welcome growing up in London, and I think I never lost that sense that it’s something that gives you a slight alienation to the place that you’re in.
And you know, I think when I first left—and, for sure, I was on a mission to leave. As soon as I could figure out how I could get funding to go to university outside of the UK. I think I applied for every single possible funding source. Thank goodness for the Andrew W. Mellon Fund; it got me out of the UK.
Charlotte Burns: Yeah.
Jessica Morgan: Now, the UK has changed dramatically since I left. I always say after going for 12 years and going back, it seemed that it had changed exponentially and was so much more international and open. But I think it was actually in the 12 years that I was back there that it changed even more. Of course, I’m devastated with what’s going on right now
But I think you grow up with a particular sensibility. And I think it also defined the way that I worked programmatically. I’ve rarely worked with something that was local. I was always interested in sort of finding out about something that I didn’t know about, that wasn’t familiar, that would take me to a place where I could learn something else.
That was certainly everything that I did at Tate, it was outside of the country and in places that I knew very little about and had a steep learning curve to understand. But it’s an incredible privilege to have that possibility, and to call it a job.
Charlotte Burns: Yeah.
Jessica Morgan: It amazes me every day, I have to say. I think it comes from that instinct of wanting to explore other things.
Charlotte Burns: To be separate somehow.
Jessica Morgan: Yeah, not necessarily to be separate but to learn about something else and not feel wedded to what it was that you came from, but rather to feel that there’s probably something much more interesting in Iran then there was in necessarily wherever it was I was living, in London, you know? Wow. How incredible to be able to go out there and find out about that.
Charlotte Burns: Do you miss that international part of the job now where obviously you were very internationally focused before?
Jessica Morgan: A little bit. I’ve had to sort of reign myself in.
Charlotte Burns: Yeah.
Jessica Morgan: I can see my team raising their eyebrows when I say I’m off to Brazil or indeed somewhere in the Middle East or Lebanon. And I still have very strong contacts in all of the areas that I was working in, and colleagues who I’m very close to, and artists as well.
Charlotte Burns: Yeah.
Jessica Morgan: But of course, you know, unless there is a very specific reason that relates to what I’m doing. It’s hard to justify it. Although now I’m taking the whole Dia board of trustees to the Kochi biennial next spring. So, I figured if I can’t go on my own, I’ll just take everyone with me.
Charlotte Burns: It’s the ideal marriage.
Jessica Morgan: But, I think increasingly we’re finding ways in which that can become programmatic for us as well.
Charlotte Burns: What are your hopes now for the next few years? I don’t really understand the job selection process for museums. Are you going to do—did you have to go in presenting like a plan? Do you go in with a clear vision? Is it three, five, 15 years?
Jessica Morgan: No. Again, maybe that comes back to having a great board, but they always joke that they can see in my eyes when we’ve already got halfway towards a particular goal that they know that I’m already thinking about—it’s like okay, she’s already moved on.
We’ve got this project in Chelsea, which means that we’re closing the spaces for a year, as of spring, to renovate, which will be great to upgrade those facilities. But hopefully you’ll come in and you won’t notice a huge amount of difference.
And then we’re onto working in Beacon where we’ve got a very big plan in terms of renovating those spaces, but also moving into the landscape—which is very exciting because it’s always been a bit of a secret garden.
Charlotte Burns: Oh, that’ll be beautiful.
Jessica Morgan: We’ll be great, and a big archive project, which has been something we’ve never really undertaken. That team is growing and again, sort of opening up our history experts for people as well, which would be fascinating. And then Soho, we’re opening this new space in Soho which will sort of create a kind of campus in Soho, parallel to Chelsea.
So as ever, we’ll all be migrating. That’s probably one of the most distinctive characteristics of the Dia team. We’re always moving, moving around.
Charlotte Burns: Flat shoes and good backpacks.
Jessica Morgan: Yeah.
Charlotte Burns: Well Jessica, thank you so much for being my guest. It’s been such a pleasure to have you.
Jessica Morgan: Thank you for having me. I really enjoyed talking about everything we’re doing.