Philippe Vergne, the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, is on his way out. The museum announced today that Vergne and the museum’s board had “mutually elected” not to renew his contract when it expires in March 2019. Staff were informed of the news at a meeting this morning.
Vergne’s departure comes at a strained moment for the institution. Just over two months ago, he fired Helen Molesworth, the museum’s prominent chief curator. Discussions about his own exit began soon afterward, sources say. One factor, they note, was the board’s dissatisfaction with the way Vergne handled the much-debated, seemingly abrupt firing.
“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,” Vergne said in a statement. “I look forward to working with the board and the museum to assure a smooth and orderly transition at this important moment for MOCA.”
Many had high hopes for Vergne when he joined the museum in 2014. During his five-year tenure as director of the Dia Art Foundation in New York, he gained a reputation as a well-liked supporter of artists and a solid fundraiser. But he drew criticism for his decision to sell nearly 30 works from the collection to fund new acquisitions and left before the museum could complete its plan to open a new permanent exhibition space in Chelsea, a project it later abandoned.
Vergne also had his work cut out for him at MOCA. The French-born curator and director joined the artist-founded museum on the heels of a tumultuous chapter for the institution, which nearly closed amid budgetary woes during the recession and weathered sharp criticism for its approach to programming under former director Jeffrey Deitch. When Vergne joined, few curators remained on staff and the museum had a nearly blank exhibition schedule.
Many were optimistic when he announced his first major hire, the well-regarded curator Helen Molesworth. And during his tenure, he successfully kept the museum on solid financial footing. Its endowment, once as low as $5 million, now stands at $125 million, according to the museum. Under his watch, the museum’s staff also grew, to 60 full-time employees. Forthcoming exhibitions approved during Vergne’s tenure include surveys of the photographer Zoe Leonard and the sculptor Haegue Yang.
Over the years, MOCA’s exhibition program began to feel bifurcated, with projects organized by Molesworth highlighting the work of lesser-known women and artists of color (including a fruitful partnership with the Underground Museum and a recent solo exhibition of Anna Maria Maiolino) and exhibitions organized by Vergne promoting splashier, more market-friendly fare (such as his shows of work by Doug Aitken and Matthew Barney).
As time went on, Vergne and Molesworth struggled to work effectively together, artnet News reported. In the weeks after Molesworth’s firing, the museum’s board remained mum and Vergne said only that she had been let go due to “creative differences.” (In a much-repeated turn of phrase, he reportedly told the artist Catherine Opie, one of the museum’s trustees, a different version of events: that she had been fired for “undermining the museum.”)
Not long afterward, rumors began to swirl that Vergne might soon follow Molesworth out the door. In April, the Los Angeles Times reported that he had put his house on the market.
A formal committee has been appointed to conduct an international search for Vergne’s replacement, according to the museum. A spokeswoman says artists from the museum’s board are well represented on the committee. The exact timeline for Vergne’s departure is not clear, although he has stated that he plans to stay on while the museum searches for his replacement.
“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,” MOCA’s board co-chair Maurice Marciano said in a statement.