Just hours before the start of the Memorial Day weekend, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles said today that its director of four years, Philippe Vergne, will be stepping down. In a statement reported by the New York Times, the museum said that it had reached an agreement with Vergne not to renew his contract, a five-year deal that will expire in March 2019.
The conclusion of Vergne’s tenure comes after an extremely rocky few months for the museum. In March, Vergne fired the museum’s chief curator, Helen Molesworth, a move that shook the art industry, with many speculating about his reasons and debating the decision. A specific explanation for her departure was never offered by MOCA.
Since the chief curator’s departure, rumors had swirled that Vergne would soon be out. Last month, the house that he and his wife, Sylvia Chivaratanond, own in the Hollywood Hills was listed for sale.
“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 released to press. “I look forward to working with the board and the museum to assure a smooth and orderly transition at this important moment for MOCA.”
Maurice Marciano, the co-chair of the museum’s board, said, “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.”
Molesworth’s dismissal followed artist Mark Grotjahn’s decision to pull out of being honored at the museum’s annual gala, reportedly over concerns that the event historically had not celebrated a diverse array of artists. “There is a new urgency to change the power dynamic and we have an opportunity to do so,” Grotjahn told Marciano, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Around that same time, artist Lari Pittman resigned from MOCA’s board of trustees, saying that he lacked confidence in the relationship between Vergne, the board, and the curatorial team. “It’s a vision problem in what the board wants, what the director wants and what the curatorial team wants,” Pittman told the L.A. Times. “Their visions are very different.”
Vergne was tapped in January 2014 to be MOCA’s director after running the Dia Art Foundation in New York, and took the place of Jeffrey Deitch, the New York dealer who left the museum only three years into his five-year contract, during the summer of 2014. (Deitch subsequently returned to New York, but as it happens, is now heading back to L.A., where he will open a gallery in September.)
Deitch had been tasked with rebuilding a storied institution whose endowment had dwindled into the single-digit millions (“a sum lower than the price of a single Jeff Koons sculpture,” as Guy Trebay once colorfully put it), and he oversaw a campaign that had raised $80 million before his departure. MOCA said today that its endowment is currently $125 million.
The hunt is now on for a new director, and the museum told the New York Times that the search committee includes more than one artist.