MOCA Introduces Its New Director (and Raises $2.4 Million) at Annual Gala

Philippe Vergne
Philippe Vergne
 Annie I. Bang /Invision/AP

This year's Museum of Contemporary Art annual gala wasn't art-directed by a major canon artist like in past years -- and didn't feature naked bodies on tables or tray-passed marijuana joints -- which gave it the immediate reputation as, according to one art dealer in attendance, the most "basic" of all the galas in recent history. But that didn't stop the museum from opening a new chapter, ushering in a new director in French-born Philippe Vergne, a major exhibition of the late artist Mike Kelley's work and a healthy endowment.

It was an evening of smiles for the 48-year-old Vergne, who replaces interim director Maria Seferian, and a great release of pressure for trustees and members. Despite "The Artist's Museum" going through considerable fiscal and organizational hardship over the past few years, there was much reason to relax at this year's Louis Vuitton-presented gala, with its new $100 million endowment.

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"Only a year ago, there was a lot of uncertainty about the future of MOCA, but today we have a solid endowment of over $100 million," said Guess founder and new MOCA board co-chair Maurice Marciano. "We are not finished yet. Our goal is to reach $200 million. So, if anybody wants to make a donation, we are open."

The night, which included a surprise Diana Ross performance, belonged to Vergne, who comes into a good situation after the departure of beleaguered director Jeffrey Deitch, who never seemed to be able to strike the right balance of critical trust and fiscal temerity. Vergne is best known for raising massive amounts of money for the Dia Art Foundation, which he had directed since 2008, via a deaccession of several major works from the foundations collection, which were then sold at auction. He previously worked at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and for billionaire Francois Pinault's private collection.

Julie Roberts, who co-owns Culver City gallery Roberts & Tilton, put it best: "Jeffrey was a Hail Mary pass. Philippe is a home run."

Vergne, whose resume includes co-curating the 2006 Whitney Biennial, himself was in high spirits. "I feel very welcome," Vergne told The Hollywood Reporter as he made his way into the tent for the dinner of roasted loup de mer crafted by Wolfgang Puck. "It's a beautiful night."

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Later, he took to the stage and told the crowd: "I wish that Mike Kelley could see all of you gathered here tonight to celebrate an artist who moved to Los Angeles from Detroit with a vision, with an ambition. Mike was in the very first exhibition at MOCA 35 years ago." The star-studded audience included Katy PerryOwen WilsonPharrell WilliamsJane FondaMoby and artists Ed Ruscha and Chris Burden.

Kelley was a staple of the Los Angeles art community before his passing in 2012 at the age of 57. The exhibit, which originated in Amsterdam at the Stedelijk Museum and features over 250 works, is overwhelming and powerful, a 360-degree look at an artist who was beloved by many in the art and music worlds for his punk-informed art.

"The Mike Kelley exhibition, in many ways, for me is a roadmap for the future of MOCA," said Vergne, addressing the crowd. "The retrospective stands for what MOCA stands for: experimentation, scholarship, involvement and deep commitment to an artist, and the desire to make this institution the 'home' of leading artists. I know the fish was really good -- and the wine was [extraordinary] -- but by being here and supporting the art, you are supporting an institution that puts the art first. In many ways, this is just the beginning."

The evening was a financial success for the institution as well. Marciano pledged to match the $1.2 million raised at the gala (making it a total of $2.4 million), which will be used to start a young artists program.

At the end of the evening, the crowd spilled out into the reception area, where Vergne held court. In fact, he remained until most of the guests left, and with just a few stragglers still there, joking around drunkenly, Vergne strode off into the night.

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