Art world reacts to new MOCA director Vergne

Art world reacts to new MOCA director Vergne
Philippe Vergne is to become the director of MOCA in Los Angeles. He was formally with the Dia Art Foundation in New York, where his portrait was taken on Jan. 16, 2014. (Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

Since its announcement late Wednesday night that Philippe Vergne of the Dia Art Foundation in New York was named MOCA director, the museum has been tweeting up a storm.

"'Philippe Vergne has the intelligence, vision, and ambition to lead MOCA forward.'—Barbara Kruger," one tweet read.


"'...I think it's a perfect marriage...'—John Baldessari," read another.

Not all the twittering noise has been positive. Tyler Green of the Modern Art Notes Podcast, practically spammed his twitter feed with negative comments on Wednesday and Thursday, including:

"Another way of reading the Vergne-to-MOCA hire: Stedelijk, Ludwig, Hirshhorn will now vie for the best candidate(s)."


When we spoke with former artist trustee Catherine Opie, she said she may return to the MOCA board. 

"I would absolutely consider re-joining the board with Philippe if they wanted to have me be a part of it," she said. "He gets to rebuild the museum — and I'd imagine part of that is his figuring out how he'd like to rebuild the board. If he wanted me, I'd be more than happy to serve the museum in any capacity. I believe in the future of MOCA."

Kathy Halbreich, associate director of New York's Museum of Modern Art since 2007, was director of Minneapolis' Walker Art Center when Vergne worked there — she hired him. "He loves artists and he believes in museums and he respects the public," she said of Vergne. "He's a marvelous citizen and he's a wise soul and he cares profoundly about art. And he even likes raising money."

Art critic Peter Plagens, a contributor to the Wall Street Journal among other publications, said he was surprised about the Vergne announcement — the Dia director wasn't one of the names on his shortlist.

"We all make our little mental bets, and I thought they were gonna pick Ann Goldstein. She'd left the  Stedelijk and it looked like they were setting it up. And she has LA roots," he said. "But Vergne, he's strong. I'm cautiously optimistic — and the 'cautiously' isn't based on anything in particular. I don't know him personally well, but I've met him and I frequent Dia. He's very personable and unpretentious; and his qualifications — he's right up there."

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LACMA director Michael Govan and Hammer Museum director Ann Philbin were not available for interviews but emailed statements.

"Philippe will be a great addition to L.A. He is a truly great curator and an extremely charming fellow," Philbin said. "The Hammer was fortunate to work with him when we presented the Kara Walker retrospective he curated for the Walker and his professionalism is as impressive as his curatorial eye. I am looking forward to welcoming him to our city and very excited to see what he does at MOCA."

"We're all very happy that MOCA is back on track with a successful fundraising effort and a new director," added Govan.

One issue Vergne will have to navigate, when he takes the helm at MOCA, is admission fees.  General admission at The Broad museum, which opens across the street from MOCA this year, will be free while MOCA charges $12 admission (except Thursday evenings, when it's free). Dallas Museum of Art director Maxwell Anderson had thoughts on the issue (general admission at the Dallas Museum, by the way, is free).

"I'd imagine that since the conversation about free admission is very active in Los Angeles, that it's certainly worth a look," he said. "As a method of increasing audience participation and attendance, the question is: Can one offset any forecasted revenue loss from tickets? And by and large I think the answer is yes."

Vergne's most significant accomplishment at Dia during his five years there? Dia board chair Nathalie de Gunzburg said "donors."

"When he started at Dia, it was an institution of a single donor; he made it an institution for several donors," she said. "He made it that everybody has to participate. He made it more democratic and safer for the artists. What strikes me about him is his integrity toward the artists and the institution."