Dia had a deep history with the artists whose work was being dumped. And the objects were not minor: the third of Barnett Newman's mature Abstract Expressionist paintings, dated 1946; a 1958 sculpture by John Chamberlain marking the debut of his trademark use of crushed automobile parts; a historic 1959 suite of 24 paintings on paper by Cy Twombly, who had died two years before, and more.
The sale was inexcusable, as invaluable public patrimony disappeared (most likely into private hands). Calculated to raise $20 million for new Dia acquisitions, the November auction instead fetched nearly twice that amount. Now, barely two months later, the director's departure rubs a bit of salt into the institutional wound.
Vergne and Dia have remained relatively tight-lipped about the fateful decision. It appears to have come about to satisfy requirements of an arrangement for a partial gift, partial purchase of 30 paintings and sculptures then on loan for display at Dia's fine museum in the upstate town of Beacon, N.Y., from the Lannan Foundation, formerly of Los Angeles but now based in Santa Fe, N.M.
Dia and Lannan have a long-standing relationship. The late Anne Lannan served on Dia's board and the foundation has been a primary funder of Dia-related projects. When the purchase-portion of the Lannan arrangement needed funding, the Dia sale carried the unseemly appearance of a quid pro quo.
Is the deaccession fiasco a deal breaker? No. But it is certainly a cause for concern.
On the bright side, Vergne can expect to have MOCA's newly reengaged board at his back. Any successful director needs that.
And the L.A. art community will likewise be pulling for him. The reservoir of goodwill is deep because the stakes are so high. To make MOCA prosper, Vergne can harness the reasonable expectation that this is the museum's last real chance.