I've pilfered this uncredited picture of Philippe Vergne on here.
I can't believe I'm even posting about this, but since the news had come out at least a dozen people have reached out to me to ask many questions, reasoning that out of 70 millions French people, two who are in the arts should know each other. Should we?
So, do I know Philippe Vergne? Only vaguely.
I went to school with his younger sister and even had dinner a couple of times at his parents' more than twenty years ago, but since he was older and not working/living in Paris I only saw him a few times then, and outside of randoms run-ins at gallery openings and occasional professional emails and phone calls I've never really been in touch with him. I think the very last time I've seen him must have been around 2000 or 2001, and last time I got in touch with him professionally must have been 6 or 7 years ago, at best.
I'm not sure he would even remember who I am.
I've never worked with him whatsoever, so I don't know what he's like to work with, but I've never had people telling me venomous gossip about him, I've never heard any dirt on him, which is much more than you can say about the vast majority of people working in the business.
All I know is that he comes from a family of lovely people, and based from the occasional contacts I had with him and things I've heard from other colleagues, whether in France or in the United States, he's known as a very hard-working, serious, professional person. My own professional relations with him (less than a half-dozens I would think) were always very courteous and pleasant, he always got back to me very quickly and provided the information needed as well as the occasional piece of advice about how to handle the matter at hand.
If I sum up recollections of the young man he was based on that semi-acquaintance we had back them, I would say he was a very curious, very active young curator, extremely hard-working, willing to unearth then-unfashionable artists and thinkers (I think I have somewhere a copy of a literary art magazine he had put up with friends that was centered on Clément Rosset). He was already interested in Los Angeles artists when nobody in Paris or Marseilles where he worked knew them. He was also someone who was doing a lot of the invisible work needed at museums, like being the "take" curator for exhibitions coming from elsewhere, writing all the wall labels, agreeing to be the courier on long truck rides, doing a lot of paperwork, etc. It's not the fashionable part of being a curator, but it's actually the biggest part of the job.
Aside from that I think I must have seen 3 exhibition he had curated, one in Marseille I only faintly recall which I think was about the body and performance (?) where I believe he had the misfortune of being in concurrence with the Pompidou for loans. The second I've seen was Let's Entertain at the Pompidou center, an exhibition I liked so much I went to see it 5 times. I even tried to get Susan Kandel interested so I'd write a review in the magazine she was editing but alas no dice. I'm sure the premises of the exhibition must have repelled a lot of our sour hardcore critics, but it certainly foresaw the changes in both contemporary art and its attraction on a larger audience that we witness now. Also, it was the best installation I've ever seen for a group show, showing a deep understanding of the physical space of the Pompidou and its connection to the city outside. I also remember it as an exhibition that had excellent wall labels describing briefly the artists career and intents and what the piece meant in the context of the exhibition. Without any empty theoretical jargon.
The last exhibition I saw was his co-curated Whitney Biennial, which I don't remember that well but then I never remember well any Biennial, Documenta, etc. I might remember some of the pieces but if you ask me which Biennial, Documenta, etc. they were in, my brain can't find that.
After this I never really followed his career, as I said we were only distant acquaintances and we never lived in the same city. I don't think I was even aware he had moved on to Dia until maybe two years ago. I can't say Philippe Vergne enters my consciousness a lot, if only because he's not someone you see mentioned all the time in the gossipy pages of Scene and Herd (he might be actually, but I don't read that stuff). And then, ta da! yesterday came the news that to MOCA he was headed, and I was very happy for him and for MOCA because I think he's devoted to the arts as so to redress our beloved institution, and as far as I know he has demonstrated professional rigor and hard work, and has no commercial interest whatsoever to promote. And I'd have stopped thinking about it then and there if not for all the questions being sent my way, and then witnessing our professional blogging sourpusses ripping him a new one just because they're bored and the demolition of the Folk Art Museum in NYC was already old news. I'm going to sum up the criticisms below and address them:
- His PR statement was bland and boring and all he could talk about was balancing the budget. Yes, when you come to an institution that has been bled almost to death by about a decade of unheeded spending, to the point of nearing bankruptcy and closure, you certainly want to demonstrate that you're fiscally responsible. It's not a sexy quality, there's nothing flamboyant about it, but it's a necessary skill if you want your institution to survive and then thrive.
- There was this scandalous deaccession issue at Dia. Yes, it was only scandalous because two of the trustees whose real job would have been to get off their asses to raise money in order to keep the Lannan Foundation long-term loans in the collection decided to sue instead. I looked up the deaccession issues when they were pointed out to me last year, and from the outside track record they were done according to the rules. Yes, nobody likes when institutions deaccession artworks, least of them the people who actually work at the institution. I've worked on a set of deaccession myself, it's a long, tedious, difficult process everybody hates doing. It goes against all your curatorial/professional instincts and beliefs, and it's a hateful job to do. Believe me, when museums or foundations deaccession, it's usually because there isn't any other option. Nobody has limitless abilities to raise funds and sometimes, you have to make a choice about which works to keep in your collection and which ones to trade up for other things. Think about it as purging your library and record collection.
- His track record is rather thin. Possibly. I'm pretty sure that has far as curating goes he has done more than many other colleagues who are far more famous, but as I've never closely followed what he's done in terms of acquiring works at the Walker I would't know.
As I said above, when he was young in France he was doing a lot of the unrewarding work that is invisible to an audience, yet necessary at museums. Being in a cubicle all day long doing paperwork and answering email is unglamorous as fuck yet every curator does it. It's not all moonlight and roses and studio visits and installing exhibition and hanging out at openings, you know?
Jerry Saltz wrote something I saw yesterday to remind everybody that when Govan left Dia he also left a mess behind him, closing the NYC space to open Beacon.
It seems Vergne's biggest failure in taking over was not re-opening a space in Manhattan. I don't really know why it was so, I'd surmise the lack of donors' commitment mingled with bureaucratic issues. To be honest when I heard that Vergne was at Dia I thought it was a mismatch, because he's someone who's interested in very contemporary art as far as I know, and Dia's focus and mission are incredibly narrow. They do a great job at preserving Land Art monuments, and I hear their lectures and performance program is very well regarded. But outside of that it's an institution that is difficult to develop in exciting ways, a bit as if there was a foundation devoted only to a certain type of art made between 1912 and 1937.
When Michael Govan was hired at LACMA, I seem to remember all the medias were talking about was how incredibly well-dressed he was, that he was flying his own plane and used to play long poker parties at night. When Jeffrey Deitch came to MOCA, aside from all the screaming because he was an art dealer, the medias focused all the parties he was throwing or attending and how he liked to have an entourage of young people around all the time. Please tell me how this is better than someone who comes in and say "yes, I can balance a budget"? If you want a tidbit of personal information about Philippe Vergne, I seem to remember he was a big fan of Sonic Youth in his twenties. So, score, Philippe Vergne.
And now that we've addressed all this stupid hoopla, I'd like to remind everybody reading here (hello, all 200 of you!) that the MOCA mess was almost a decade in the making, and it took many people to do it. It's now in a far healthier situation financially, but Vergne is going to have to rebuild the institution from the ground up and he will need the support of the community to do so. He won't be able to remake it a great institution in just one year or two, for starters he's going to have to hire a lot of people, and not only curators. In a way this could be a dream situation for a museum director, to be able to compose his own team, but in reality this will likely be a long and tedious process. There's only a skeleton staff at MOCA right now, so to get the museum going it's gonna take everything from preparators to registrars to educators and secretarial staff. It's likely the first two years of programming will consist of "take" shows and permutations of the collection. In addition, Vergne's work is to be the director of the museum, NOT its chief curator: he might get around a lot at openings etc, I don't know, but expecting that he will do a zillion studio visits with local artists is an unreasonable expectation. This will be the job of the curators he will hire, in addition to the ones already here (Alma Ruiz and Bennett Simpson).
So let's all wish the very best to Philippe Vergne and to MOCA and be kind and attentive while he starts remaking it a great museum, and let's have a look in about 5 years to see what he will have done. In the meantime, welcome Philippe! Enjoy Los Angeles as much as I did when I lived there.