Critic’s Notebook: MOCA has lacked an effective director for nearly 20 years. It’s time for change

The Museum of Contemporary Art in 1996.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Art Critic

For art museums, is there a director’s gene? A distinctive bit of DNA material that distinguishes between a successful museum director and a successful curator?

If so, the Museum of Contemporary Art needs to start DNA testing of potential candidates to fill the directorship being vacated by Philippe Vergne. In the post for just over four years, Vergne has announced he will be departing the museum by the time his five-year contract is up next year. He’s the third MOCA director in a row who hasn’t been able to make the switch from smart, talented curator to top administrator at a major art museum, and I fear the museum cannot survive another one.

The announcement that Vergne’s contract would not be renewed came from the museum on Friday — the typical time for institutional bad news to be revealed. Weekend diversions minimize public blowback, a truism that gets an added boost from making the announcement on the brink of a federal holiday.


It may not measure up to canceling a North Korea summit, but the cusp of vacation time is just as distracting for any brand of serious news.

And Vergne’s departure is serious. Like his MOCA predecessors Jeremy Strick (1999-2009) and Jeffrey Deitch (2010-2013), Vergne was unable to make the transition from curator to director. That means MOCA, a major art museum of international significance, has been without an effective director going on 20 years — half its lifetime.

That desperately needs to change — and fast.

It is a testament to the museum’s extraordinary history and position within the hearts and minds of the city’s large and influential community of artists, collectors, critics and art audiences that the place hasn’t just dissolved into dust. Still, it is doubtful it could survive another hiring flub.

THE NEWS: Philippe Vergne is out at MOCA »

What Vergne, Deitch and Strick all possess is a deep knowledge of and love for the art of our time. That’s essential for a MOCA director. Smart and articulate, all three have organized important exhibitions.

What they have been unable to organize is the director’s office at MOCA.


Vergne came from the DIA Art Foundation in New York, essentially the legacy of an extended family with an established, relatively static collection. Deitch owned a successful Manhattan art gallery where he organized gallery exhibitions and advised high-end clients, but as a businessman he could claim no experience in managing even a small nonprofit. Strick was a respected senior curator at the venerable Art Institute of Chicago.

Post-MOCA, the first two returned to their curatorial strengths, one of them nonprofit and the other for-profit. Strick took the directorship of the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas — not unlike DIA in being an exhibition venue representing the legacy of a significant art collecting family. Deitch went back to selling art, and reportedly he will soon be opening a Hollywood branch of his Soho gallery. Both men have flourished in those familiar haunts.

But neither’s job requires the same kind of extra-artistic expertise that running a major art museum demands. While Strick and Deitch, like Vergne, did not have track records meeting the complex needs of a large organization, including a sizable staff, they also lacked another essential element: the capacity to manage a board of trustees.

... any museum director is in a decidedly complex spot. Some people thrive on it, others do not.

Directors are usually thought of as needing myriad skills to “manage down” — to administer everything from curatorial departments, budgets and everything else that goes into supporting the general museum mission, including the less glamorous but equally vital daily maintenance and security teams. But that’s only half the battle.

Less commonly considered is the talent to “manage up” — to realistically pull a board of trustees into full support for the vision the professional team wants to make a reality. That cannot happen when the director is perceived as merely an employee.

Trustees often have their own ideas of where they want a museum to go, including what they want to exhibit and collect. Sometimes they attempt to run the institution with the director as their chief of staff.

Their job, however, is not to run the place but to stand back at arm’s length and have the museum run by pros. It’s a complicated and even awkward task, especially for wealthy and powerful individuals who are used to getting their way.

As the point of intersection between amateur enthusiasts in the boardroom and museum pros on the staff, any museum director is in a decidedly complex spot. Some people thrive on it, others do not.

We can get some idea of MOCA’s difficulties in that regard with two simple examples. Board meetings regularly take place not at the museum’s downtown location on Grand Avenue but at hotel meeting rooms in Beverly Hills, apparently for the convenience of Westside trustees. And board co-chair Maurice Marciano, an exceptionally generous MOCA patron, opened his own quasi-museum on Wilshire Boulevard last year.

A director should insist that museum board meetings be held at the museum that trustees are overseeing. And the board co-chair should have been talked out of executing his plan or, failing that, asked to support the museum he so greatly admires from a position off the board.

That neither has happened suggests the casual ways in which a board can walk all over a director. Divided loyalties are anathema.

For several weeks, rumors have been all over town that trustees have been in conversation with Christopher Bedford, the still-new director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, about possibly taking the MOCA helm. Bedford, 41, is a smart and talented curator.

Among other things, he organized last year’s important and impressive American Pavilion at the Venice Biennale for artist (and MOCA trustee) Mark Bradford. Formerly director of a small but respected university museum, curator at another and briefly a curatorial assistant at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, he’s been leading the encyclopedic Baltimore Museum for just 20 months. It is far too soon to tell whether Bedford has the elusive director’s gene.

Maybe yes, maybe no. But that his is the only name that has been circulating in L.A.’s busy institutional rumor mill does give one pause. Faced with a vacancy in the director’s office, MOCA might be going down a well-trod path once more.

Twitter: @KnightLAT


Timeline: MOCA in flux

With rumors swirling, the future of MOCA director Philippe Vergne remains a big question mark

MOCA still mum about curator’s firing, despite crucial questions and too few answers

MOCA fires chief curator Helen Molesworth