Arts & Entertainment

UPDATED: MOCA names Philippe Vergne new museum director

File: General view of the atmosphere at
File: General view of the atmosphere at "The Artist's Museum Happening" MOCA Los Angeles Gala cocktail reception held at MOCA Grand Avenue on Nov. 13, 2010 in Los Angeles.
John Shearer/Getty Images for MOCA

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Los Angeles's Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) named Philippe Vergne their new museum director late Wednesday evening. He succeeds Jeffrey Deitch, who resigned on Sept. 1.

According to the museum, a 14-member committee selected Vergne, who was unanimously approved by the museum's board. Vergne previously served for five years directing the Dia Art Foundation in New York.

"I am honored to be joining MOCA. I have admired its collection and programs throughout my career and I am thrilled to have the opportunity to lead this great institution into its next phase and to return to Los Angeles with my family to my wife's native city," Vergne said in a press release.

“Philippe brings a strong international perspective and curatorial record to MOCA,” said MOCA board co-chair Lilly Tartikoff Karatz in a press release.

The museum has faced troubles in recent years, nearly being forced to close in 2008, but held a $100 million endowment campaign in 2013. They had previously been bailed out to prevent closure by billionaire Eli Broad, who donated $30 million at the time.

Deitch ended up resigning two years before the end of his contract.

Artist John Baldessari left the museum's board in late 2012, but praised Vergne in a press release, saying, "I am 100 percent excited that Philippe Vergne will be the new director of MOCA. MOCA is very fortunate. I think it’s a perfect marriage."

When speaking with KPCC's "Off-Ramp," Baldessari had previously said not to blame outgoing director Deitch for the museum's problems, despite disagreeing with Deitch's direction for the museum, instead blaming the vision of the board.

Mat Gleason, founder of the Coagula art journal and owner of Coagula Curatorial Gallery in Chinatown, who has been a thorn in the traditional art establishment’s side, says Vergne is “a safe pick.”
“I think it’s a very conservative choice, and maybe MOCA’s backed up against the wall and needs to be conservative. It’s certainly nowhere near as ambitious, radical, as when they picked Jeffrey Deitch, but the entire art world turned on MOCA for picking a maverick. If you want MOCA to be a fuddy duddy institution with a great collection, you’ve got your man.”
Unlike some, Gleason says Vergne’s shorter stays at his various institutions is a plus. “If they’ve been at the same institution for ten years, that’s a red flag. You want somebody who’s hungry to move up.”

In a statement, MOCA raved about Vergne’s past fundraising feats – and about how he expanded the board of trustees at the Dia Art Foundation.

David Galligan, a former colleague at the Walker Art Center in Minnesota, believes Vergne has the personality to bring in the kinds of donations MOCA needs.

“People give to people, not just to institutions, and Philippe has a formidable set of personal skills and it’s those personal skills that come into play with those donor relationships whether they’re corporations, foundations, or individuals,” he said.

Vergne does have one blemish in his past – deaccessioning. That’s when a museum sells off one piece of art to buy others. It’s mostly looked down upon in the museum world. Last year, Vergne pushed a plan to do just that.

That may worry some, as Vergne is taking over a museum that has a collection of Jackson Pollocks, Rothkos, Warhols, Basquiats and many other works that are the envy of museums and galleries around the world. But Galligan said they shouldn't be concerned.

“Solving the financial problems of MOCA would not be derived by selling any portion of its collection," he said. "I’m sure that something that’s well understood by the board of MOCA and certainly by Philippe.”

Deitch came from the art gallery world and was part of a controversial reign at MOCA, despite increasing the museum's audience. He did so with exhibitions that some critics considered low-brow.

Vergne also previously worked as deputy director and chief curator at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis for over a decade, as director of the Francois Pinault Foundation in Paris and as director of the Musée d’art Contemporain (MAC) in Marseille, France, according to a press release from the museum.

Vergne has previously curated exhibitions by artists including Carl André, Yves Klein, Thomas Hirschhorn, Huang Yong Ping and Kara Walker. His academic background includes a doctorate in art history, a degree in archeology and the history of modern art and a degree in law.

The museum has a collection of more than 6,800 objects, according to the museum, which they exhibit at three L.A. locations.