In the contemporary world, art patrons are rarely thought to exercise sway over the creation of modern art works, according to art historian Anna Chave, Ph.D. Yet the age-old practice of patronage, she said, has been surprisingly influential within the modern school of minimalism.

Speaking on Oct. 9 at Fordham School of Liberal Studies’ Art in the City Lecture, Chave, professor of art history at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, pointed specifically to a few wealthy patrons, such as art dealer Heiner Friedrich and his wife, Philippa de Menil, and art dealer Giuseppe Panza di Biuono, as having revolutionized the stature and influenced the direction of minimalism in the 20th century.

Anna Chave, Ph.D., describes minimalist artist Walter de Maria’s work, “The Broken Kilometer,” pictured above. The work consists of 500 brass rods spread across a 7500-square-foot space. Photo by Michael Dames

These collectors, she said, were able to monopolize the purchase of minimalist art in the 1960s and 1970s, and then elevate certain artists to prominence by creating an aura around their work.

Minimalism is a term applied to post World War II artwork that is considered essentialist, simple in both form and content, and uncluttered with personal expression—such a black box on a white canvas or a large three-dimensional cube.

“Really, there was nobody else who wanted to buy these artworks, I mean a lot of people thought [Panza] was crazy to buy, so . . . the work didn’t cost a lot,” Chave said. “[But] these patrons held a view of minimalism that was very unorthodox, and it was a view the led them to elevate certain artists within the minimalist group.”

Panza saw the works as having “auratic qualities,” or a special spiritual energy, and subsequently developed “a lofty vision of the potential for displaying such works,” Chave added.

“Although Panza started out as an ordinary collector, he . . . rewrote the minimalist project to suit his own penchants and sensibilities,” she said, adding that the patrons moved the concept of minimalism away from a secular, intensively materialist concept into something much more sublime, even religious.

To those ends, patrons tended to underwrite a lot of “site specific” art and large, epic installations, she said.

“[Panza’s] motto was: ‘[let the gallery]Take the place of the cathedral,’ and that vision came to be strongly shared by Dia’s founders,” she said.

Collectors Friedrich and de Menil established the Dia Art Foundation in 1974 to support contemporary art, especially large-scale minimalist works by West Coast “light and space” artist James Turrell and New York light and sculpture artist Dan Flavin. Such patronage, she said, allowed the artists to undertake large-scale projects that might have been impossible to create on their own.

Today, Dia operates a museum-gallery in Beacon, New York, and until recently operated a gallery in New York City’s Chelsea district.

Chave compared the patrons and Dia artists’ relationship to one similar to that which transpired during the Renaissance between Florence’s famous Medici family and a cohort of the day’s artists, such as Michaelangelo and Donatello. She called it a “mutual admiration society.”

“Each in a way affirmed each other,” said Chave, adding that some critics refer to these artists as “Dia-Fied.”


Janet Sassi is editor/associate director of internal communications. She can be reached at (212) 636-7577 or [email protected]