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Another Dicey Choice: LA MOCA Picks Dia Art Foundation’s Philippe Vergne As Director

Philippe Vergne, MOCA's director-designate

Philippe Vergne, MOCA’s director-designate
Photo by Cameron Wittig

After the Deitch Disaster, LA MOCA needed to make an impeccable choice for its next director. Instead, it’s made a flawed one.

Philippe Vergne, director of the Dia Art Foundation since 2008, does have a lot going for him—deep, impressive curatorial credentials, including distinguished work at the Walker Art Center, where he was deputy director and chief curator, “organizing more than 25 international exhibitions as well as artist residencies and the Herzog & de Meuron facility expansion,” as described in MOCA’s announcement.

What’s more, Vergne is clearly a favorite of artists—a big plus at an institution that has always prided itself as being artist-centric. Under Jeffrey Deitch‘s embattled directorship, MOCA famously ran afoul of its four artist-trustees, who all resigned. All four—John Baldessari, Barbara Kruger, Catherine Opie and Ed Ruscha—served on the 14-member director’s search committee and sang Vergne’s praises in MOCA’s four-page press release.

All well and good. But now, show me the money.

Cognizant that one of the chief beefs against Deitch was his deficiences as a fundraiser, MOCA praised Vergne, in its celebratory announcement, for his “strong fundraising skills,” without providing any details about what he had actually raised. The main fundraising he’s publicly known for at Dia is raking in proceeds from the more than $38.4 million (the total from the more important of two auctions) in deplorable deaccessions that occurred this November at Sotheby’s. These included all the foundation’s works by Twombly—an artist highly regarded by Dia’s founders. They made their extreme displeasure publicly known, and even briefly sued the foundation, in an effort to stop the sale.

How are potential MOCA donors of money and art going to have confidence in a director with such a high-profile record of violating key benefactors’ wishes?

Also undermining confidence in MOCA’s choice is its announcement’s failure to provide any specifics about Vergne’s claimed success at fundraising for Dia’s capital projects. I sent a follow-up query asking for further details and was issued this boilerplate reply by both MOCA and Dia (the source of the statement):

Dia is in a silent phase of its campaign, but is extremely heartened by the fundraising to date and the commitment of its Board.

As detailed in last night’s NY Times scoop by LA-based Jori Finkel (erstwhile of the LA Times) and NYC-based Randy Kennedy, one of Vergne’s top goals since he arrived five years ago was “to build a new space on West 22nd Street [in NYC], on the footprint of one of two exhibition spaces [Dia] used to occupy in Chelsea.”

But, as the Times states, here’s what happened:

In 2011 it [Dia] paid $11.5 million for a small building near the site. But in more than three years since the announcement, ground has not been broken and Dia has made no statements about progress on a capital campaign.

It may be, as Vergne asserts in Dia’s press release today announcing his departure, that “all of the building blocks have been put in place by the Board for Dia to return to New York City” and that Dia “is on the cusp of an exhilarating new era.” But the lack, so far, of any details about that era’s financial or programmatic underpinnings gives cause for concern.

We can only hope that Vergne won’t use his vaunted “fundraising skills” to offload important works from MOCA’s core collection from major donors, including classic contemporary works by the likes of Pollock, Rothko and, yes, Twombly.

“Dia cannot be a mausoleum,” Vergne famously told Carol Vogel of the NY Times in justifying last fall’s sell-off at Sotheby’s. My fear is that he might monetize important older works at MOCA to feed his appetite for the new. When I directly asked a MOCA spokesperson today if that might be the case, she unequivocally replied, “No.”

Still, Vergne’s comments quoted in the LA Times article about his new gig gave me additional cause for concern about his priorities:

My vision is to commit to the most experimental artists of our time, but also to contextualize their work within a broader context. And I think MOCA’s collection is one of the best to contextualize that kind of experimentation.

Are the august forebears of today’s artists going to be relegated to the subsidiary role of contextualizers? I hope the answer is no.

The other big question is whether Vergne’s got the goods to revitalize MOCA’s emaciated staff and exhibition schedule. Even NY Magazine critic Jerry Saltz, a Vergne admirer, worries about his “sparse track record” at Dia. His most high-profile initiative was Thomas Hirschhorn‘s Gramsci Monument in the South Bronx last year (to which I gave a mixed review).

Meanwhile, although no dates have yet been set for Vergne’s departure from Dia or his arrival at MOCA, Charles Wright has already been named Dia’s interim director, effective immediately. He served as Dia’s director from 1985-1994.

I was right on Deitch. I may prove to be wrong in my less serious misgivings about Vergne.

I hope so.

an ArtsJournal blog