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Dia:Beacon at 15: How the arts institution shaped the Hudson Valley

In the 15 years since the Dia Art Foundation transformed a Nabisco factory into an enormous cultural space, the surrounding town has transformed, too

Photo by Bill Jacobson

The story of Beacon, New York, could have been another chapter in the narrative chronicling the decline of post-industrial America. After its factories shuttered in the 1970s and the city lurched into an economic slump, it could have never recovered. And Beacon’s housing market could have taken a hit during the Great Recession from which it might have struggled to rebound.

But none of those things are, in fact, the story of Beacon; the city of around 15,000 people is thriving, so much so that gentrification has become a hot-button topic in the area. And one of the major catalysts of that change, Dia:Beacon, shows no sign of letting up.

Understanding how the opening of Dia:Beacon, the nearly 300,000-square-foot contemporary art museum with roots in Manhattan, could bring back a town whose main economic driver was once manufacturing requires a bit of understanding about Beacon. The Hudson-fronting city 60 miles north of New York was once an industry town where, over the decades, factories pushed out everything from hats to lawnmowers to Tuck Tape. It was a three-shift town where, as former mayor Steve Gold told the New York Times, you could get fired from one factory in the morning and have a new factory job by end of day.

But that started changing in the 1970s, when factories moved production and Beacon’s economic health began to freefall. “There was a real active Main Street when I was growing up in the early 1960s,” says Beacon Mayor Randy Casale, a lifelong resident who took office in 2012. “We had every kind of store until the malls opened up, and then the small businesses started closing and the storefronts started becoming empty.” Those malls, in Poughkeepsie and Newburgh, which opened in 1978 and 1980, respectively, were a death blow to the small stores that had managed to sustain themselves even as the factories left town.

The vacancies along Beacon’s Main Street paved the way for the conversion of retail space into storefront residences. “The crowded buildings often weren’t adequately protected against fire and other emergencies and storefronts used as residential space did little to promote economic development,” as the Highlands Current put it in a 2016 piece. Curtains appeared in windows that once displayed men’s clothing and Army/Navy supplies. “In the 1980s, you could throw a bowling ball down Main Street and not hit a single car,” recalls Casale.

But the town started to turn around, even before the arrival of Dia:Beacon, when Mayor Clara Lou Gould pushed an agenda of code enforcement, which stopped landlords from turning their storefronts into makeshift apartments. It also welcomed in low-interest loans that aided the work of developers like Ron and Ronnie Beth Sauers, who acquired and restored historic properties, like the Mozheyko Building and the Dondero Block along Main Street.

And then, the Dia Foundation came. The nonprofit already operated several galleries and site-specific installations—including Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty and two pieces in Soho by Walter De Maria—but needed a new space for some of its larger objects. “The story I got was they were flying over and they saw this factory with skylights,” Mayor Casale says. “They found us; we didn’t find them.” The factory offered Dia the monumental space it needed to display its monumental collection of 1960s and ’70s contemporary art, including pieces like Richard Serra’s large-scale steel sculptures “Torqued Ellipses” and Dan Flavin’s “Monuments to V. Tatlin.” Plans for Dia:Beacon were announced in 1999, and the museum opened four years later.

Inside a gallery at Dia:Beacon.
Bill Jacobson

The art organization’s decision to open in Beacon and reclaim the town’s former Nabisco box printing factory as a contemporary art museum was the largest cog in the machine of Beacon’s remaking. When the $50 million museum opened in May 2003, it anticipated a yearly visitorship of 100,000. A study conducted by the Williams College Center for Creative Community Development found that yearly visitorship had reached 68,420 by 2011.

The museum is on track now, bringing in over 100,000 visitors a year since 2016; its latest projections put Dia:Beacon’s fiscal year 2018 visitorship at 116,000. “Dia has brought remarkable attention and commerce to the city of Beacon since we first launched Dia:Beacon in 2003, and we have continued to work closely with the city’s leaders to ensure that this positive effect continues into the future,” Jessica Morgan, the Nathalie de Gunzburg director of Dia, wrote in an email to Curbed.

Even though the museum brought in fewer heads than anticipated in its early years, changes were soon afoot in town. Artists and creative types from the city began descending on Beacon not long after the museum’s opening in 2003, recalls John Gilvey, a co-owner of Main Street gallery Hudson Beach Glass, which has had a presence in the town since 1984. “These people were living in Park Slope or Williamsburg or lower Manhattan, and they were getting priced out of there,” he says. “They knew what those places looked like 50 years before; they looked like Beacon.”

Median home values began to soar almost instantly. In Dia:Beacon’s first year, the median home price in town rose 25 percent, from $181,079 to $227,623. Today, the cost of residential real estate in Beacon is higher than ever before, with a median home value of $305,101, according to Zillow. Dutchess County overall, in which Beacon is located, still hovers 24 percent below its peak median home value of $342,220, set before the recession, in April 2006.

Despite the rapid rise in housing costs, Beacon’s household median income has remained relatively stable over the past few years. The Census Bureau’s American Community Survey’s five-year estimates put Beacon’s household median income at $60,987 in 2010. Although median home values increased 11 percent between 2010 and 2016, the household median income only increased by $1,930.

Meanwhile, tourism to the area has skyrocketed since the museum’s opening. The story is in the numbers: Between 2005 and 2016, expenditures by tourists in Dutchess County increased from $447 million to $568 million, with costs for lodging increasing from $87 million to $120 million.

The sudden and dynamic economic shift in the town led to a new comprehensive planning framework that was unveiled in 2007, and revised in 2017. It calls for improved transportation along Main Street and toward Dia:Beacon—a necessity as more out-of-towners, many of whom arrive via Beacon’s Metro-North station, spend days or weekends in the city—with more sidewalks, better lighting, bicycle paths, and better wayfinding signage for bike routes.

Plans also call for more building density, particularly surrounding the town’s Metro-North stop. There are 900 residential units in the planning phases, recently completed, or awaiting approval from the town’s planning board, says Beacon building inspector Tim Dexter. The new development could bring as many as 2,300 new residents to Beacon, adding to the city’s population of about 14,271.

This rapid scale of growth, despite the planning framework’s best efforts, has caused a rift in the community. Concerns about the city population exceeding its available water supply, which can support 17,800 residents, and the rapid—and in some community members’ opinions, unchecked—development led the town’s city council to adopt a six-month development moratorium that was lifted in March.

“We have some growing pains,” Casale concedes. “What we’re trying to do is manage growth in a sustainable way the best that we can.” That includes taking on an affordable-workforce housing code in 2010 that, like in New York City, requires developers to create below-market-rate dwellings in new multi-unit residential projects.

Dia itself recognizes that it’s helped accelerate this shift in Beacon. “We have developed over the years a wonderful dialogue with the city and its community, which extends even to its youngest residents through Dia’s arts education program for school-age children,” Morgan, the Dia director, said in an email. “As a result of this relationship, we are constantly addressing options for reinvigorating our site in Beacon to maximize its potential, both in the galleries and outdoors, refreshing the Dia experience for our local patrons.”

The city of Beacon.

Indeed, Dia is seeking to expand its reach within the community; in early June the foundation announced a broad plan to upgrade and expand its programmatic spaces in Beacon and Chelsea and relaunch its Soho facility. In Beacon, the foundation will add 11,000 square feet of new programming space within the envelope of the existing building and restore the exterior of the factory.

“I do think this will be a destination not just to return to see favorite artworks, but also to see Beacon as it keeps changing,” the now former Dia Art Foundation director Michael Govan told the Times in 2003, revealing his awareness that the day Dia arrived in Beacon, the town was fated for seismic change.