Cultured Magazine

Winter 2014

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DIRECT HIT Philippe Vergne makes his mark as the new director of MOCA, Los Angeles. BY MAXWELL WILLIAMS PORTRAIT BY GRAEME MITCHELL There are few artist studios in Los Angeles that haven't seen a tall, strawberry-blond Frenchman blow through lately. That man is Philippe Vergne, the newly anointed director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; and he's getting the lay of the land. MOCA is vying to revitalize Downtown Los Angeles, and it's doing that from a comfortable financial place (a recent fundraising initiative brought the museum's endowment up to $100 million). This has allowed Vergne to be patient with the programming that he and his curatorial staff— including new chief curator, Helen Molesworth—are concocting for the next few years. "After the Mike Kelley retrospective and Francesco Vezzoli exhibition, we faced a world of opportunity," says Vergne. "We put our thinking caps together to ask, 'How do we imagine the next two years of programming?' It takes two to three years to put together a serious exhibition that you can publish, research, tour and also, pragmatically, that you can fundraise for. So, we looked at the artists we were interested in and what kind of museum we wanted to be. To the question of what kind of museum we wanted to be: we wanted to stress the 'C' in MOCA. We wanted to focus on artists who are not obscure, of course, but artists who are not seen all the time, artists that have not been paid attention to enough." This means MOCA will err on the side of challenging exhibits, bringing to L.A. things like the Sturtevant retrospective that originated at MoMA in New York ("She was such a punk"), commissioning a site-specific, large-scale William Pope.L work at the Geffen Contemporary and hosting a major Matthew Barney exhibition that covers the eight-year period leading up to the operatic film, "River of Fundament," which Vergne calls, "Matthew at the edge of maturity." Vergne notes that the artists in the program all have works in MOCA's vaunted collection. He shares a vision with Molesworth about the collection being the beacon for MOCA's future. "It's about thinking, making and building art history during an extremely confused historical time, when the world seems to be falling apart for many reasons," he says. "If you don't make sense of it now, you can layer, keep and safeguard it, and it might make sense 25 years from now. That's what a collection and a publication is for." Formerly the director of the Dia Art Foundation in New York and the deputy director of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Vergne is an experienced fundraiser, and he's committed to stepping up efforts to top off MOCA's endowment at $200 million. He says this amount will steady the museum and give it leeway to focus on enhancing the publications, education and library departments, all areas Vergne sees as having room for improvement. "It's like doing masonry," he says, pantomiming the stacking of bricks. And with Vergne at the helm, it seems as though MOCA will have a sturdy architect to help them build. "It's about thinking, making and building art history during an extremely confused historical time, when the world seems to be falling apart for many reasons." —Philippe Vergne 90 CULTURED

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