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The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) has tapped Dia Art Foundation director Philippe Vergne as its new director. Vergne is the second Dia head to helm a major Los Angeles institution — Michael Govan, current head of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), is a Dia directorial alum as well. Vergne replaces Jeffrey Deitch, a former art dealer, whose run at MOCA was filled with tumult and hand-wringing.
According to MOCA, Vergne was selected by a 14-member search committee, which included Joel Wachs (president of the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts,and former Los Angeles City Council member) as well the four former MOCA artist trustees — John Baldessari, Barbara Kruger, Catherine Opie and Ed Rusha — each of whom split from the museum during the Deitch era.
Vergne’s legacy at Dia wasn’t without its own ups-and-downs. During his tenure, which started the day of the Lehman Brothers collapse and Dia facing its own budget crisis, Vergne successfully brought the collection’s budget to stability, and oversaw the foundation as it made plans to build an exhibition space in Manhattan by 2016 or 2017.
Vergne was also at the center of controversy when he deaccessioned key works – most notably pieces by Cy Twombly and John Chamberlain — for auctioning at Sotheby’s. The decision faced strong opposition from two of Dia’s founders, Heiner Friedrich and Fariha de Menil Friedrich, as well as Paul Winkler, the former director of the Menil Collection. “Dia cannot be a mausoleum,” Mr. Vergne told The New York Times in his defense when revealing the sale. “Poems to the Sea” by Twombly ended up selling for $21.7 million, while “Candy Andy” by Chamberlain sold for $4.6 million.
Vergne’s ability to raise money by any means necessary is a quality that MOCA may have considered in their appointment of Vergne. He comes to MOCA in a much more advantageous position than Deitch did. Deitch entered just after a $30 million bailout by collector Eli Broad following a perilous dip in the museum’s endowment. But now, with the endowment replenished to $100 million during a recent fundraising campaign, Vergne can focus on rebuilding a depleted staff, which counts Bennett Simpson and Alma Ruiz as the only remaining curators.
Maria Bell and her co-chair on MOCA’s board of trustees with David Johnson closed out their terms with a bang, leaving with both the success of the fundraising drive and the hiring of an exciting new director. Bell and Johnson will step down soon, making way for new co-chairs Maurice Marciano and Lilly Tartikoff Karatz.
“[Vergne] is terrific,” Bell tells The Hollywood Reporter. “We saw him as someone who really understood what to do to take MOCA into this new era, which will include building the staff — particularly the curatorial staff. He’s someone who loves bringing new people to contemporary art. We just felt Philippe was a dynamic candidate, and that he would be competent in the job. He understands the art side and the management side with great equanimity.”
Bell explained that Vergne will transition into the job in the matter of a couple of months. “The folks at Dia didn’t know about this until it happened, so he will transition out from there first,” Bells says. Maria Serefian will continue as MOCA’s interim director until the transition is complete.
Vergne will also enter just before the museum’s much-anticipated Mike Kelley retrospective opens on March 31, which was curated by Ann Goldstein, a former MOCA director who was rumored to be in consideration for the director’s job. Other names bandied about were New Museum curator Massimiliano Gioni and Aspen Art Museum CEO Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson. The museum did not respond to a request to confirm other possible candidates.
“The director search has been a very careful process,” outgoing MOCA board co-chair David Johnson recently told THR. “We’ve talked about wonderful candidates and been very gratified in the interest level of some of the best candidates for this kind of position internationally.” In a press release, MOCA revealed that its board of trustees was unanimous in its decision to appoint Vergne.
Prior to Dia, Vergne worked at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis as the deputy director and chief curator, and he was the director of the Francois Pinault Foundation in Paris. At the Walker, he curated “Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love,” which served as the first official survey of Walker’s work, in 2007.
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