Virginia Dwan in her New York gallery, 1969 (digital ID 8801)

Virginia Dwan said she didn’t really like to talk about art

But through her galleries in Los Angeles and New York as well as financing artists, particularly Land artists like Michael Heizer and Robert Smithson, she had a huge impact on art in the 1960s and ’70s. 

Dwan, who died of cancer at age 90 on September 5 in Santa Fe, New Mexico, dropped out of the University of California, Los Angeles where she was studying art, and opened her own gallery. It was 1959, and women-owned galleries were not so easy to find — or to run. Dwan reportedly asked her husband not to attend events with her or people would assume he owned the gallery. 

At Dwan Gallery in the Westwood neighborhood of Los Angeles, Dwan showed artwork by Joan Mitchell, Philip Guston, and Robert Rauschenberg, among others. She presented Yves Klein’s first West Coast solo exhibition, and in 1962, the gallery had one of the first exhibitions of Pop art, My Country ’Tis of Thee, which included work by Claes Oldenburg and Roy Lichtenstein. Dwan opened her New York gallery in 1965, making it the first gallery in the country to have a presence on the two coasts. She closed the LA gallery in 1967, and in 1971, she closed the New York gallery as well. 

Robert Smithson collecting sand in Pine Barrens, New Jersey, 1968 January. Pictured left to right: Mary Peacock, Virginia Dwan, Nancy Holt, and Robert Smithson. Smithson is shoveling sand into a bag held open by Holt, collecting materials for his first “non-site” (indoor earthwork) piece. (photo by Sol LeWitt, digital ID 11612)
Installation view of the Yves Klein le monochrome exhibition at the Dwan Gallery in Los Angeles, May 29-June 24, 1961 (photo by I. Serisawa, digital ID 10025)

Dwan was born in Minneapolis in 1931. Her grandfather was a co-founder of the 3M Company, and she was one of 18 heirs, which allowed her to keep her gallery open even though, according to James Meyer, a curator of modern art at the National Gallery of Art, she lost money year after year.  

Meyer first met Dwan in 1991, when he interviewed her for his dissertation on minimalist art (it became a book, Minimalism). She kept going because of her sheer love of art, Meyer said in an interview with Hyperallergic, noting the earthworks she later financed — like Heizer’s 1969 “Double Negative”  and Robert Smithson’s 1970 “Spiral Jetty” — were unmovable and unsellable. 

“She was one of the few people I’ve met who just loved art and backed it unreservedly,” he said. “She had a desire to see new art and get to experience it in person. Her absolute foundation was a love of art and respect for artists.”

Installation view of Sol LeWitt one-man exhibition at Dwan Gallery, New York, 1966, Double Modular Cube (1966, foreground) and Modular Floor Structure (1966, background) (digital ID 18249)

Meyer worked with Dwan on her gift to the National Gallery in 2013 of 250 works, including paintings by Yves Klein, Agnes Martin, sculptures by Jean Tinguely and Sol LeWitt, and collages by Rauschenberg. In an interview with Artforum in 2014, Dwan said that the idea of her collection sitting in storage depressed her. “The idea is really that people should feel something from the collection,” she said. “When the works are finally shown at the National Gallery, the opportunity will be there for the public to linger, to absorb.” 

Meyers also curated the National Gallery’s 2016 exhibition Los Angeles to New York: Dwan Gallery, 1959–1971, which traveled to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art the following year. 

The show made Dwan’s contribution to art history obvious, Meyer said. 

“The evidence was on the walls and the floors of her huge impact on the art of the ’60s and ’70s,” he said. “It was an amazing show.”

Installation view of  Walter De Maria, “Bed of spikes” (1969) (digital ID 12745)

Dwan, along with artists Charles Ross and architect Laban Wingert, designed the Dwan Light Sanctuary, meant as a peaceful space, which opened in 1996 in Montezuma, New Mexico. 

Meyer says Dwan’s idealism and lack of interest in profit were rare. 

“She represented an idea of art that is powerful and pure,” he said. “It was divorced from the market mentality that is dominant today.”

Editor’s note 9/15/22 10am EDT: A previous version of this article misstated the name of artist Jean Tinguely as Yves Tinguely. The article has been corrected.

Emily Wilson is a radio and print reporter in San Francisco. She has written stories for dozens of media outlets including NPR, Latino USA, the San Francisco Chronicle, SF Weekly, California Teacher,...