Los Angeles Museum Names a New Director
The Museum of Contemporary Art Picks Philippe Vergne, of the Dia Art Foundation
LOS ANGELES — After a six-month search that fueled intense speculation, the Museum of Contemporary Art here has confirmed that Philippe Vergne, director of the Dia Art Foundation in New York, has been chosen as its new director.
It is the second time in a row that the museum has looked to New York for a new leader. Mr. Vergne will replace Jeffrey Deitch, the former New York art dealer who generated fierce controversy as the museum’s director from 2010 until last summer.
Mr. Vergne, 47, who was born in Troyes, France, is a veteran curator with experience both in Europe and in the United States and an extensive background in museum administration. He was director of the Musée d’Art Contemporain in Marseille from 1994 to 1997, and then a senior curator at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.
He went back to Europe briefly to run the private François Pinault Foundation for contemporary art, but returned to the Walker as its deputy director and chief curator in 2005. In 2006 he was one of the curators of the Whitney Biennial, which was generally well received, though regarded by some critics as dry and didactic.
Since 2008, Mr. Vergne has run the Dia Art Foundation in New York, which has a reputation both as a risk-taking contemporary art pioneer and as an institution that has struggled financially.
A former director, Charles Wright, has signed on as interim director, while Dia’s search begins.
The appointment comes on the heels of the Museum of Contemporary Art’s announcement last week that it had reached its goal
of a $100 million endowment, with most of the money raised in the past year. Trustees expect the endowment, which had plunged to a low of $6 million in 2008, to generate a minimum of $5 million in income a year and to stabilize operations.
But the museum, known as MOCA, remains in flux organizationally, with major holes in its coming exhibition schedule and a skeletal staff compared with previous years. The new director’s challenge, along with fund-raising, will be to restore the museum’s exhibition program and credibility as a world-class showcase for postwar art.
How successful a fund-raiser Mr. Vergne has been for Dia is not clear. In 2009 the organization announced plans to build a new space on West 22nd Street, on the footprint of one of two exhibition spaces it used to occupy in Chelsea.
In 2011 it 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.
Last year, Mr. Vergne drew criticism from many in the art world for deciding to put several significant pieces from Dia’s collection — by luminaries like Cy Twombly, John Chamberlain and Barnett Newman — up for auction, to raise money for acquisitions. Much of the proceeds from that sale — which raised $38.4 million at Sotheby’s — will pay for 30 works on long-term loan from the Lannan Foundation and on display in Dia’s outpost in Beacon, N.Y.
The naming of a new director coincides with a changing of the guard among the museum’s trustees. Maria Bell, the co-chairwoman of the board, and David Johnson, the co-chairman, stepped down on Tuesday, with Lilly Tartikoff Karatz and Maurice Marciano taking their places.
The director search committee, led by Ms. Bell and Mr. Johnson, among others, included four prominent California artists who were former board members: John Baldessari, Catherine Opie, Barbara Kruger and Ed Ruscha.
All four resigned from the board in July 2012 over frustration with its leadership, citing what they called a lack of commitment to serious exhibitions and the ousting of the museum’s chief curator. There were other board defections and staff reductions that year.
Only two curators remain on the museum’s staff: Bennett Simpson and Alma Ruiz.
Many Los Angeles arts leaders said that the new director’s priorities should be reconnecting to the community and rebuilding the staff.
Diana Thater, an artist who helped start a grass-roots group to support the museum’s independence during various merger talks, said before a new director was named that the person “should make a huge effort to reconnect to the community that supported MOCA for so long and since abandoned it.”
She added: “We don’t want someone coming into town the way Jeffrey Deitch did, announcing immediately his own curatorial plans. We’re not interested in his personal plans. We’re interested in his plans for hiring more curators and how he’s going to manage the so-called $100 million endowment.”
Richard Koshalek, a former director of the museum who recently returned to Los Angeles after several years at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, had another take.
“The most important challenge for the new director,” he said, “is to raise the standard of expectations of the museum within this community and beyond, and that means new, original ideas for the future. If you don’t raise expectations in every sense — in terms of leadership, programs and such — you will not have the chance to raise the funding needed for the museum to sustain itself programmatically and operationally going forward.”
In MOCA’s official statement, the four artists on the search committee all expressed enthusiasm for the hire. Ms. Kruger, for one, praised Mr. Vergne for having “the intelligence, vision and ambition to lead MOCA forward” as well as a “deep understanding of artists and the art they make.”
Correction: January 16, 2014
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article misstated the surname of the new interim director of the Dia Art Foundation. He is Charles Wright, not White.
A version of this article appears in print on January 16, 2014, on page A15 of the New York edition with the headline: Los Angeles Museum Is Set to Name a New Director. Order Reprints