Philippe Vergne says his first task as the new director of L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art is not to act quickly but to think and plan deeply.
On the job less than two weeks after extensive past experience as director of New York's Dia Art Foundation and top curator and deputy director of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Vergne spelled out no immediate changes Wednesday and said he'll look to MOCA's past achievements for guidance.
"The most important priority is to look at the programming and reimagine the program" of exhibitions and events, he said as he joined Lilly Tartikoff Karatz and Maurice Marciano, MOCA's new board co-chairs, and Maria Seferian, the museum's interim director before his arrival, for a discussion with Los Angeles Times reporters and editors.
Vergne, slender and well over 6 feet tall even without his wavy, upswept crown of reddish-brown hair, said that a crucial early task is to "find a great chief curator" to help with that process.
"It takes two or three years to do a real serious exhibition," he noted — and although he ventured no comparisons between himself and his predecessor, Jeffrey Deitch, the comment, a kind of truism in the art museum world, seemed telling.
Deitch's tenure was marked frequently by shows organized much more quickly than the norm and with considerably more hands-on direct curatorial involvement by the museum director.
Vergne's approach will be different. Unlike Deitch, who eventually admitted that he failed to connect with the museum staff that was there when he arrived, Vergne said that a few weeks before he officially began his new job on March 10 he went through a "three-day immersion in which I spent every single minute of my time meeting with the staff and trustees," both in groups and one-on-one.
"It was extraordinarily strategic in the right way. I've never had that when I entered an institution before," he said.
It's still not clear what financial resources Vergne can immediately command as he sets about rebuilding a curatorial staff that was winnowed from five to two under Deitch, who'd used ad-hoc guest curators to fill the gaps. MOCA's future exhibitions program remains largely nebulous.
Over the last 12 months MOCA's board has focused on building its endowment from $20 million to $100 million, but endowments, while providing long-term stability, do not always yield a great deal of short-term cash for paying bills. Only the investment gains on endowment funds can be spent, and pledges paid this year might not yet be generating returns, since investment markets have been balky so far in 2014 after an 18-month boom.
In any case, Vergne said he aims to develop a plan for exhibitions and other events, and use that as a guide for a funding and fundraising approach.
"We need to put an ideal program in place, then do a financial model that will respond to it," he said. "The way I want to look at programming is to look back at the context, the history of what made this institution so great. I want to look at the collection, learn from the collection. Programming needs to be informed by the history, aesthetic and values of MOCA."
The major retrospective exhibition on L.A. artist Mike Kelley that opens at MOCA March 31 may seem like an import, organized in Amsterdam and sent to New York and then L.A., but Vergne made a point of reclaiming it as MOCA's own creation. He recalled a dinner seven years ago in Rejkavik, Iceland, at which he heard that plans were underfoot for a big retrospective on Kelley, who died two years ago.
"I called Paul Schimmel [then MOCA's chief curator] — 'Is MOCA really doing a Mike Kelley exhibition?' The first spark came from MOCA and carried on," Vergne said, noting how Ann Goldstein, who'd been MOCA's senior curator under Schimmel, took the project with her when she became director of Amsterdam's Stedelijk Museum in 2010.
Now, he said, "it's coming back, and it's a legitimate homecoming. I can't think of a better way to start, because Mike was so important to me."
Tartikoff Karatz spoke of the sense of revival she feels on the board, especially compared to the time in 2012 and early 2013 when MOCA seemed to be foundering, with budget cuts and friction that erupted openly after the forced resignation of Schimmel, who'd been at odds with Deitch. This week, MOCA welcomed back prominent L.A. artists John Baldessari, Barbara Kruger and Catherine Opie as board members; they and artist Ed Ruscha had resigned as MOCA trustees during the turmoil of 2012.
In those days, Tartikoff Karatz said, "I would come home and say ... 'I don't think I'm having such a good time,'" she recalled, saying it felt emotionally as if the museum had bottomed out.
But things have been on an upswing, she said, since the board's vote a year ago to stop entertaining merger proposals, including one from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and launch the endowment funding campaign to secure an independent future for MOCA. "Now is a very different time," she said. At this week's board meeting, she sensed "a lot of pride in the museum, and we're very inspired by Philippe. It was very special."
Marciano, the Guess Inc. apparel magnate who's co-chair with Tartikoff Karatz, said he's temporarily putting on hold his own personal art project — converting a huge former Masonic temple on Wilshire Boulevard into a museum to house his own collection of contemporary art.
He said he'll concentrate only on his MOCA duties while serving as its co-chair "and put mine on the back burner. I'll have time to go back to my museum. If it's delayed by a year or two years, it's not a big deal. MOCA is here and it's a great institution and this is where I'm going to put my focus."
The board's role, going forward, is to help Vergne implement his vision for MOCA, rather than manage from the boardroom. "We're here to support the staff of the museum, not to tell them what they should do."