After five years of turmoil – during which the museum battled near-fatal financial troubles while enduring the widely criticized tenure of mismatched director Jeffrey Deitch – MOCA needed to score a perfect 10 in the long awaited hiring of its new director. With faith in the organization so seriously eroded, its first imperative was to restore confidence with a smart, savvy and inspiring choice for Deitch's replacement. It didn't quite achieve that with the announcement late Wednesday night of the appointment of French-born museum professional Philippe Vergne, formerly director of the Dia Art Foundation in New York.
The news was largely greeted with silence from the usually chatty Los Angeles art community, primarily because people don't know much, if anything, about him. Unlike other museum figures who have been pegged as possible candidates for the MOCA directorship, Vergne isn't someone with a big reputation, nor does he have ties to the local community. Walker Art Center director Olga Viso, for example, who is widely admired in the museum world, probably would have generated more immediate excitement. And can you imagine the Hollywood ending that would have ensued if former MOCA curator Ann Goldstein, who recently stepped down as director of the Stedelijk Museum, had made a triumphant return as director?
Social media reactions from the East Coast, where Vergne is more of a familiar face, ran the gamut from positive to negative. Some, like blogger Paddy Johnson, think he's a solid pick, citing in particular his work as co-curator of the well received 2006 Whitney Biennial. Jerry Saltz, who was the first to post a full-length response to the appointment, gives Vergne a lot of credit for brains and charm, but also worries about his sparse track record at Dia.
More vehement responses came from Vergne's critics. Lee Rosenbaum, who blogs as CultureGrrl, characterized the appointment as “another dicey choice” from MOCA. In a piece posted Thursday, she slammed him for his lack of a fundraising track record and for the well-documented controversy in which he sold off key pieces from Dia's collection in order to fund other acquisitions. On Wednesday night, Tyler Green of Modern Art Notes carped about the same issues via Twitter, tweeting ominously, “If you were concerned about the future of MOCA on Dec. 15, 2013, you should be no less concerned now.”
So far, Vergne is looking like a flawed but not terrible choice. MOCA is positioning him as the anti-Deitch, emphasizing his solid museum credentials and his ability to play as part of a team. But the concerns raised by his critics, along with his own unimpressive remarks in his first interview with the L.A. Times (he babbled artspeak platitudes like “My vision is to commit to the most experimental artists of our time, but also to contextualize their work within a broader context. And I think MOCA's collection is one of the best to contextualize that kind of experimentation…”), do give pause.
We have to remember, however, that this is MOCA we're talking about, a museum whose astounding levels of institutional incompetence over the last five years have been well documented in the press. (Full disclosure: this writer is a former MOCA employee.) A perfect 10 director hire would have been nice, but perhaps not realistic for a group with their batting average. Judging from the information that's out there, Vergne is maybe a 7. Dark horse Deitch was probably a 4 when he got hired (and a 2 at the end), and if there's one thing that everyone can already agree on, there is no way that Vergne is going to be worse than Deitch.
There's nothing to do at this point but wait and see. Overall, the local art community seems to be adopting a stance of cautious optimism, and a few positive voices (not affiliated with MOCA's public relations machine) have made themselves heard. Stacey Allan, editor of online magazine East of Borneo, expressed support for MOCA via social media outlets, saying that the museum needs a win and it doesn't help to be too critical before Vergne has had a chance to prove himself. Art historian Noëllie Roussel, who once worked at LACMA as an assistant curator, was more specific in her praise of Vergne, with whom she is distantly acquainted: “He's professional, serious, hard-working, pleasant and courteous. He needs all the support of the community to rebuild MOCA from the ground up.”