Virginia Dwan

Virginia Dwan on her philanthropy and bequest to the National Gallery of Art

Michael Heizer, exhibition poster for “New York/Nevada,” 1970.

In the second segment of this two-part series, Virginia Dwan addresses the closure of her New York gallery in 1971 as well as the bequest of her collection this past fall to the National Gallery of Art. In the first segment, Dwan discussed her life as an art dealer and philanthropist. “From Los Angeles to New York: The Dwan Gallery 1959–1971,” an exhibition curated by James Meyer, will open at the National Gallery’s newly renovated East Building in 2016.

THE QUESTION of why I closed the gallery always comes up. I just ran out of energy to do it. I call it burnout. I liked having a gallery, though: I enjoyed producing shows, coming up with the advertising, and things like that. I certainly loved being with the artists. But the business of art dealing was something I was never good at. I came to realize it was really hard work for me. I suppose I would have enjoyed being a curator, but I would have had to have a free hand, which you typically do with a gallery, but not with a museum.

Many artists were leaving New York by 1971. I’d heard that some said they were fed up with the art world and wanted to get away from it, though no one ever said that directly to me. But I do know many wanted a bigger canvas. They wanted more space to work with. Particularly most of the artists I was involved with—Michael Heizer and Robert Smithson, especially.

Left: Robert Smithson in the Yucatán, 1969. Photo: Virginia Dwan. Right: Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty, 1970. Photo: Virginia Dwan.

I knew all along that I would give most of the major works I’d collected to a museum, and I found the offer that James Meyer and Harry Cooper were making from the National Gallery very compelling. In essence, they wanted to open a newly renovated building with a major show and catalogue about the gallery. On top of that, I learned that the National Gallery never can deaccession works. I couldn’t refuse.

There’s the idea that things could sit in storage for many years to come, and not be out in the world where people can see them and be moved by them. It depresses me. I’ve previously given works to museums: Heizer’s Double Negative, for instance, to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, as well as six of his large-scale projected photographs (Actual Size: Munich Rotary, 1970) to the Whitney Museum. I’ve given works to the Museum of Modern Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Walker Art Center, among others. But I’ve always felt that I wanted the collection to have the widest possible viewership—perhaps for some it will even be an introduction to Minimalism. The idea is really that people should feel something from the collection. When the works are finally shown at the National Gallery, the opportunity will be there for the public to linger, to absorb.

History should be constantly rewritten, and I hope that happens for the gallery. I shared many important feelings about art and artmaking with the artists I’ve worked with. I cared deeply about them, and part of my way to express this concern was by presenting their work. Of course the artists were always primary, absolutely. But I was never a disinterested bystander.