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New MOCA director Philippe Vergne prompts cautious optimism

The Museum of Contemporary Art continues to take steps toward pulling itself out of a deep, nearly six-year slump that almost sank the once widely acclaimed institution. With $100 million in endowment pledges and an ambitious plan to up that ante by 50%, MOCA announced the hiring of a new director this week.

One can greet the appointment of Philippe Vergne, 47, with cautious optimism. L.A. wants its MOCA back. Vergne's job is to deliver it.

Vergne faces the desperate need — and the golden opportunity — to rebuild a critically important institution battered by long-standing administrative mismanagement. He'll be the museum's fifth director since its founding in 1979.

Based on his prior positions as director of New York's Dia Art Foundation and deputy director at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, he has those skills. So far, they haven't fully blossomed. But MOCA is the kind of back-from-the-brink prospect that can make a director's career.

TIMELINE: MOCA in flux

Today the museum's curatorial and support staff have been depleted, the exhibition schedule is nearly vacant, membership and attendance languish. Although a start date for the new director has yet to be announced, the French-born Vergne will need to move quickly — especially on the curatorial front.

Curators are an institution's professional foundation, their sensibilities and priorities the rock on which the artistic edifice is built. Under previous director Jeffrey Deitch, that essential job was mostly outsourced to freelancers with no stake in MOCA.

The permanent collection and the program are the twin poles around which every art museum revolves. In that regard, Vergne last summer saw the public high point of his tenure leading Dia — and its low point.

An unusual and ambitious exhibition of a prominent international artist, held in an unexpected locale, generated fervent critical debate — always a healthy sign in a city's art life. At the same instant, the tragic decision to sell major works of art that had been in the Dia collection for more than 30 years flew in the face of a museum's fundamental reason for being.

The off-site exhibition Vergne organized was Thomas Hirschhorn's "Gramsci Monument," a new commission from the Swiss Conceptual artist, 56, that took place at a city housing project in the South Bronx. Hirschhorn, with the participation of local residents, constructed a village of shacks commemorating Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), the Italian Communist philosopher and rabble-rousing journalist who was imprisoned by Mussolini for working against the fascist government.

GRAPHIC: MOCA's ups and downs with Jeffrey Deitch

Over the hot summer months, Hirschhorn's working-class village-within-a-village functioned as a community center, library, theater, museum, radio station, printing press, Internet lounge, art studio and cafe — all meant to vivify the internalized tension of class conflict that the Italian philosopher believed was the beating heart of every cultural institution. When the 10-week show was over, the materials and equipment used to build the unorthodox monument were distributed by lottery to housing project residents.

The project's subject was especially pointed for America's steadily widening gap between haves and have-nots. The New Yorker magazine hailed it as "this year's most captivating new art work." The New York Times hissed that it was little more than "another monument to ([an artist's] monumental ego." The divergent opinions were well argued, but the critical split could not have been wider.

I did not visit the "Gramsci Monument," but the thoughtful reviews, pro and con, represented exactly the kind of passionate, partisan engagement one hopes a contemporary art museum will inspire. Dia had performed a real service — for the artist, the project participants and the art life of the city.

Vergne has a good reputation for working productively with artists. For MOCA, whose distinctive history among American museums puts artists at the center of its program, that bodes well.

Yes, he has sometimes slipped. As an invited co-curator of the 2006 Whitney Biennial, Vergne helped produce a dyspeptic display of work by 101 international artists that, in my review, I found "earnest and stale."

More disappointing for Los Angeles, his otherwise fine survey of the important young artist Kara Walker, which traveled to the UCLA Hammer Museum in 2008, came with a terrible catalog. The 400-page tome analyzed literally dozens of New York and European precedents for Walker's signature black-paper-silhouette murals but made no mention of their most powerful immediate forerunner: the acclaimed black-silhouette paintings of L.A.-based artist Lari Pittman.

Los Angeles artists regularly disappear from American art history. A primary MOCA function is to prevent that. In staffing the museum, Vergne will need to take great care.

More troubling than the usual give-and-take over lively exhibitions was the dispiriting news that erupted just two days before the controversial Hirschhorn show opened. Sotheby's announced that Vergne's Dia had consigned major works from its collection to the auction block.

Collections provide the core identity that distinguishes a museum. MOCA has a history of ambitious programming, but its extraordinary permanent collection of more than 6,000 works also sets it apart from other American museums focused exclusively on contemporary art.

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.

christopher.knight@latimes.com

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