The Museum of Contemporary Art, ensconced in uncertainty and internal strife for months, announced Friday that director Philippe Vergne is leaving.
The board of trustees will not renew Vergne’s five-year contract, which expires in March. The museum said the decision was mutual.
MOCA announced the news to staffers in a morning meeting Friday.
“It has been a privilege and my great pleasure to serve the museum and to work alongside the board and with artists throughout the community,” read a statement from Vergne, who did not respond to The Times’ request for an interview. “I am proud of what MOCA’s dedicated board, talented staff and I have accomplished.”
Artist Ed Ruscha was quick to offer praise for Vergne after his departure was announced.
“How is MOCA ever going to find anyone as suave, friendly, urbane and genuine as Philippe Vergne?” he said.
Artist Lari Pittman, who resigned from the MOCA board this spring, had a different take: “Sadly inevitable news but a more hopeful prognosis for MOCA. Time to hire a woman as director!”
Rumors that Vergne would be leaving MOCA grew after The Times reported that the museum director had put his $4 million Hollywood Hills home on the market this spring.
That report followed Vergne’s firing of MOCA’s highly respected chief curator, Helen Molesworth, a move that surprised those in the art world who praised her as a champion of diversity in programming. The firing came shortly after MOCA suddenly canceled its annual gala fundraiser in February after its honoree, Mark Grotjahn, dropped out over growing concern that past honorees have all been straight white men.
Neither Vergne nor MOCA would say where Vergne might be heading. A spokesperson for the museum did confirm that while the search for his replacement is underway, Vergne has no immediate plans to leave his position and that he intends to help with the transition process.
A search committee of about half a dozen board members is in place, led by board President Maria Seferian. She served as the museum’s interim director after former director Jeffrey Deitch resigned in 2013. Artists are “well represented” on the current search committee, MOCA said, without offering details.
“As a group, MOCA’s board is united in our effort to make sure the museum continues to prosper, be engaged with the most pressing issues of our time and innovate,” Seferian said via email. “We have formed a search committee, including artists from the board, who are actively working on a wide-ranging, international search.”
MOCA wouldn’t comment on specific candidates. At least one name that has been swirling: Christopher Bedford, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art.
Some artists stressed their desire for more diversity and relevant, exciting programming.
“I’ve been looking at art most of my life and you just wanna get exicted,” said Henry Taylor. “I get bored with my own stuff; I just wanna see stimulating exhibitions, a good show. Whoever can bring it, bring it. Sometimes that means a male [artist], sometimes a female, just mix it up. Bring something that means something.”
The museum said it would leave the search for Molesworth’s replacement to the new director.
Vergne took his post at MOCA in March 2014, coming from New York's Dia Art Foundation. He entered the museum at a time of optimism. MOCA’s endowment had plummeted to $5 million in 2008, but Vergne arrived shortly after the museum hit a fundraising goal of $100 million. As he departs, the museum’s endowment is more than $125 million.
Vergne, formerly chief curator at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, green-lighted popular and critically acclaimed exhibitions that Molesworth organized, such as “Kerry James Marshall: Mastry” and a retrospective of Brazilian artist Anna Maria Maiolino. He also served as lead curator for a survey of multimedia artist Doug Aitken and a retrospective of sculptor Carl Andre. The museum has forthcoming surveys of Zoe Leonard and Haegue Yang planned, as well as a multi-year partnership with the Underground Museum in Arlington Heights.
“I know I speak for the entire board when I express my deepest gratitude to Philippe for his commitment, leadership and vision for our beloved institution,” board co-chair Maurice Marciano said.
Vergne added: “As I look back over the last four years, I am proud that we achieved the range of artistic and education programs that were central to the mission I set in motion when I first became director thus contributing to the museum’s financial stability and its expanded audience.”
MORE ON MOCA