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Diana Ross, Pharrell help MOCA mark 'new era' at star-filled gala

Diana Ross, in a ruffled crimson dress layered with sparkles, strutted across the stage Saturday night at the Museum of Contemporary Art's gala, belting out the lyrics to a classic tune that had particular resonance:

“Did you think I’d crumble, did you think I’d lay down and die?” she crooned. “Oh no, not I. I will survive …”

The crowd, thick with tuxedos and floor-length gowns, bobbed and cheered, iPhones swaying in the air to capture the soul-pop diva. It was only a year ago, after all, that MOCA was burdened by financial instability so severe that the museum nearly was forced to merge with another institution and lose its independence. Internal strife peaked last September with the acrimonious departure of then-Director Jeffrey Deitch.

PHOTOS: MOCA 35th anniversary gala | Arrivals

By contrast, the museum’s 35th anniversary gala at the Geffen Contemporary this weekend was awash in the spirit of triumph and renewal. It was the official welcoming of new museum Director Philippe Vergne, who took his position March 10, as well as of new board co-chairs Maurice Marciano and Lilly Tartikoff Karatz. The event also marked the return of artist trustees Barbara Kruger, Catherine Opie and John Baldessari, who left MOCA in July 2012 over conflicts with Deitch. Gala guests also got a sneak peek at the retrospective opening Monday featuring the work of the late Mike Kelley.

The night also held some news: The museum, having met its recent endowment goal of $100 million, has set a new goal not at $150 million, as previously announced, but at $200 million.

During dinner, while introducing Vergne, Marciano surprised everyone in the room -- including Vergne  -- with the announcement that Marciano personally would be matching the evening’s net ticket sales of $1.2 million, bringing the total raised that night to $2.4 million.

“I’ve been looking for you all my life,” Vergne joked at the mike to uproarious applause. “I wish I could invite every single person in this room to stand on the podium and look at this room. It’s amazing! I wish that Mike Kelley could see this room and all of you tonight.”

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Earlier in the evening, Vergne -- in a dark suit and with his characteristic tussled hair swept neatly off his face -- greeted guests streaming into the outdoor bar. More than 100 artists attended the gala, the museum said, including Kruger, Opie, Doug Aitken, Chris Burden, Helen Pashgian, Ed Moses and younger midcareer and emerging artists such as Ryan Trecartin, Rodney McMillian and Samara Golden, whose work the museum recently acquired for its permanent collection.

Also in attendance: Ed Ruscha, who also left the MOCA board in 2012 and has since joined the board of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. He said he chose not to return to the MOCA board because “it was time for younger -- or maybe older -- artists to serve.” He remains a staunch MOCA supporter, he said. “This is like marking a new era for MOCA, a brighter new future. We have such momentum.”

Opie said there was much to celebrate at the gala -- a sentiment that Aitken echoed.

“Vergne is the perfect, perfect guy for the job,” he said as he tried to explain the local geography of Venice using a knife and fork for the benefit of Vergne’s wife, Sylvia Chivaratanond.

Hollywood A-listers included Jane Fonda, who was bathed in photographers’ flashes.

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“It’s such a wonderful night,” she said, adding that she’s been collecting the art of Thornton Dial. “Such a great night,” she repeated, looking around the room.

Suddenly, the photographers' flashes grew brighter as Pharrell Williams joined Fonda at the table. “I’m a huge fan,” Fonda said, leaning over to say hello and to introduce Williams to her boyfriend, Richard Perry, a music producer.

“I know you!” Pharrell said to Perry.

“I know you!” Perry shot back.

After bidding Fonda and Perry goodbye and greeting an “old friend,” gallerist Larry Gagosian, Williams said “art is important, all types.

“Museums, they remind humanity of the power of imagination.”

Katy Perry was in equally high spirits. The singer, who said she's venturing into collecting mostly contemporary works and photography, has been leaning on gallery owner Marc Selwyn to help "train my eye.”

“But tonight," she said, "I’m just here to celebrate MOCA.”

Eli Broad, whose eponymous contemporary art museum is being built across the street from MOCA's Grand Avenue building, slung his arm around former MOCA President Bill Norris.

“I still remember the first MOCA event we had back in the ‘80s. The food’s much better now,” Broad joked.  

Museum trustee Susan Gersh, who came to the gala with her husband, David, and with friends Werner Herzog, the film director, and his wife, Lena, said the gala was the culmination of a difficult year.

“The meetings were difficult, they were soul-searching,” she said. “But we dug in our heels and refused to give up. Look at us now. I couldn’t be more proud and exhilarated.”

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