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The Long View: An Interview with MOCA Director Philippe Vergne

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Founded in 1976, the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) has certainly had its share of ups and downs in recent years. For anyone not following the complicated trajectory, here's a rough breakdown. The downtown institution came close to financial collapse in 2008, when it was revealed that the previously $38.2 million endowment had been whittled down to a mere $5 million due to spending it down to cover operating costs. There was talk of absorption by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art across town, or a partnership with neighboring University of Los Angeles, but talk of both quieted when local collector, Eli Broad, came to the rescue with $30 million: $15 million was a matching grant for the endowment and $15 million was for exhibition support. It did and, after a year of tight budgets and staff cuts, MOCA seemed to have found new life with a new director, Jeffrey Deitch, in 2010. When that appointment led to a series of challenges and resignations, MOCA resurfaced, with the appointment of Philippe Vergne in January 2014.

But to give a little context to the new appointment, it is valuable to take a look back. Though renowned in the art world as a successful and adventurous New York gallery director, Deitch had little museum experience and, despite some successful exhibitions, his short-lived tenure was fraught with controversy. It began when a cluster of longtime board members expressed disapproval, with some resigning, and blew up in June 2012 with the surprising announcement that highly respected chief curator Paul Schimmel had also resigned. (After a confusing round of press releases and news stories, the official word in the Los Angeles Times was that he was "forced to resign".) This move met with some disapproval and was followed by all four internationally recognized artists leaving the MOCA board. One year later, Deitch himself resigned, leaving MOCA open to new questions. The museum set about to raise its endowment, reaching the $100 million goal in less than a year.

Shortly after reaching its fundraising goal, the museum announced the appointment of the new director, longtime museum professional, Philippe Vergne. Born and educated in France, Vergne comes to Los Angeles from, most recently, his position as director of New York's Dia Art Foundation for more than five years. Previous to that, Vergne was top curator and deputy director of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis for 10 years. His MOCA appointment was met with widespread approval and a return of artists to the board.

Two days after France honored Vergne with the prestigious Légion d'Honneur, Artbound had the opportunity to sit down with him in a spacious but unassuming office to get a sense of his point of view and plans. The impression left with this writer is that Vergne comes to MOCA not only with the steady hand many in the press have already noted, but also with an abiding passion, wide-ranging intellect, and deep knowledge of art. And yet, as Vergne notes of his predecessor's time at the helm, viewers will have to look at the program over time to gauge his success.

What do you enjoy or find compelling about the L.A. art scene? What are you looking forward to here?

Philippe Vergne: Freedom. To be perfectly transparent, when you move to a new place, everything is compelling; everything is new. L.A. is not totally new to me, but what is new for me is to live here and to be totally immersed.

At the same time, I feel like have been living and working in the art scene in Los Angeles for a while -- from artists like Mike Kelley or Liz Larner or Mark Bradford, Edgar Arceneaux, Rodney McMillon, Sam Durant, Paul McCarthy -- so there is a level of familiarity with the art scene. The question becomes, why, before living here, was I spontaneously looking at a lot of artists living and working in Los Angeles? If I look back, I think there I something unconventional -- I don't want to say that the East Coast is conventional and the West Coast is unconventional because that's a stereotype -- but there is a conception here of art that is less object-driven and more project-driven than on the East Coast or in Europe.

I think that what's happening on the East Coast and what's happening on the West Coast are part of same cultural reality, which is: What is culture in the United States right now? What is compelling to me here is to discover another side of American culture, a side that is complementary to what I knew--different from being in Minneapolis or New York. Someone reminded me recently that Claes Oldenburg came here in the sixties because he wanted to take a break from the East Coast. But it was not an anti-East Coast move, it was about: How do you expand your gaze?

I see this dialectic between, on the one hand, L.A. as an international city and, on the other hand, this cluster of small communities with distinct points of view. Some of these communities have amazing art that hasn't necessarily risen to international prominence. In this continuum, MOCA has veered towards the former; do you plan to continue that trajectory?

PV: Like New York, L.A. is an international city, so to be an L.A. institution is to be an international institution. At the same time, you can say that MoMA is a local institution, the same way that you could say that the Pompidou in Paris or the Tate in London are local institutions. But I think the goal of the local institution is not to be insular, but to bring the world to the local circumstances. MOCA is a contemporary art institution and you cannot pretend to be contemporary without being fully international today. I think we start from the fact that the museum is in Los Angeles and then, what do we do from that point and what do we bring here?

This brings us to another question, the flip side, how do you engage the diverse audiences of Los Angeles? Is that of interest to you?

PV: Yes, of course. We need to embrace the broadest audience possible. We do that through programs. I wish I could give you the recipe; I would be a billionaire.

The question of engagement is an international one.

PV: In a cultural institution, we build relationships. And we build relationships with audiences. So, to answer your question, we continue to build relationships. We want people to understand that this museum in Los Angeles is their museum. It's about the quality of the art and how we can be very generous and strategic in sharing the art that we think is the most interesting art being made today.

How do you imagine MOCA will interact with the Broad Museum opening across the street? I know they will have free admission and you have mentioned the possibility of discounted or free days...

PV: It will serve both institutions to be in front of each other. They are two different institutions, different traditions of institution. When the Broad opens, it will be a magnet. The building will be beautiful and the collection will be seen on a very large scale for the first time. We will work with them to make sure that people cross the street. More is more. In terms of being free, it's a real conversation but we don't have an answer yet here. We have a menu of free programs for our audiences but there is more work to be done there.

It must seem funny to you, coming from New York where there are so many museums, that I ask about having two museums on the same street.

PV: Yes, it's true, but I look at what's happening in Los Angeles that I am discovering right now and I see that there is a density of art and culture downtown. You have the Disney Hall and REDCAT, and near the Geffen, there is the Japanese American Museum and we are across from each other, too. The same way that we need to work with the Broad Museum, we need to coordinate more with the Japanese American Museum because they have a fantastic program and I think we should be more strategic in coordinating our efforts. What we do is extremely different, but that doesn't mean that we can't make ensure that all the programs are available to the broader audience.

You come on the heels of a colorful director, also from New York. Despite the controversy, it wasn't all bad -- what did you consider to be Deitch's successes here at MOCA?

PV: I've known Jeffrey Deitch for a very long time. He's someone who has a true vision and a deep knowledge and commitment to art. I think it was a very different and a very odd situation. I know he's been criticized for many things, but when I look back, I look at the program and the leadership. The one that everyone talks about is "Art in the Streets." I don't know anything about street art; he does. He's one of the rare scholars for this category of art in the art world. I don't see many people who have the passion and the expertise for it. His passion started with Basquiat and Keith Haring and took him to the present. I remember a few years ago, I was traveling to Moscow and he was there. We did some studio visits and we met very young street artists. I was amazed to see how much they spoke the same language and knew the same culture. That was, for me, part of the MOCA tradition -- to explore a moment that no one had explored before. I thought it was great that this exhibition happened. At the same time, "The Painting Factory" and "Blues for Smoke" were under his leadership, as well as "Urs Fischer" and "Ends of the Earth". It was also under his leadership that MOCAtv was created. I think that besides what people read, at the end of the day, for me, you look at the program and you form your own opinion.

Do you have any comment about fundraising?

PV: It's too early. Of course, it needs to happen and we're working on it. There is a science to that and a team and a goal. The team is extremely committed. Of course, you start with the leadership of the museum and the board. The goal is to get the endowment to $200 million and it's going to take time and a lot of work. But it's absolutely necessary to grow the endowment to this level because that will make MOCA even more independent, not only independent financially, but independent intellectually. If you have the stability, you can start really engaging with artists in very experimental ways. So the conversation about the endowment and raising the money is really in the end about the art. It is to give this institution the financial stability to protect the art, to protect the notion of experimentation, to add the capacity in response to all the questions that you ask, such as to show art that we might not be familiar with because it's comes from a different tradition and make it available to larger communities of audiences.

Speaking of the board, I think everyone is happy that the artists have returned, and I am sure you are too. Three returned (Barbara Kruger, John Baldessari, and Catherine Opie), but I noticed that Ed Ruscha did not return.

PV: Ed was on the board for seventeen years. When we asked him to consider coming back, he had already joined another board, the San Francisco board. Artists can only do so much if they take it seriously. It takes time in the studio. It doesn't mean that he's not going to help or that he's not going to be a presence.

How did the conversations with the artists go? Do you have any comment?

PV: Very well. The only comment is that they came back. They came back and Mark Grotjahn came in. I thought it was also very important for artists like John Baldessari and Ed Rusha to know that another generation of artists would join.

I think it's very important to have artists on the board for two reasons, because every time they step in the room, they remind us why we do what we do. Also, I want them to have ownership of the institution. I want them to have a voice; I want them to have power. It's extremely important.

Are you thinking along the lines of bringing in additional artists from a younger generation?

PV: Yes, definitely. I want them to be part of the conversation. I want them to have a voice at the table. They are the experts.

You have said that your first order of business is to hire a chief curator. What are you looking for in a chief curator?

PV: Leadership, scholarship, partnership.

Of all the museums in the world why choose the embattled MOCA?

PV: MOCA has been good to me since I began to look at art. I've learned a lot from MOCA and have huge admiration for the programs at MOCA, for the staff, and for the collection. When this conversation started, first I was intrigued, and then I got really passionate about it. I think the potential is enormous. The fact that the artists were in the room was a huge influence for me. Talking with John Baldessari, Kathy Opie, or Barbara Kruger -- when they are interested in what you can bring to the picture, you think twice. The fact that MOCA was founded from a dialogue between artists and patrons was important to me. The fact that the collection involved works such as "Double Negative," 1969, by Michael Heizer in the desert, which is one of the rare achievement in earth art open to the public for free. A museum or an institution that can have both, you know, thirteen Rothko's and "Double Negative," has a different sense of responsibility. Having "Double Negative" suggests that we need to think about collecting differently. I don't have an answer about how differently, but I think it's a good start.

You have said that MOCA must become the most innovative museum in the country; how might you accomplish that?

PV: The answer is through the program, but it's too early to reveal what we're cooking.

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Top Image: Philippe Vergne arriving at MOCA's 35th Anniversary Gala Presented by Louis Vuitton at The Geffen Contemporary. Photo by Neil Rasmus/BFANYC.com.

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