In Los Angeles, Director of Museum Steps Down

Posted May 25, 2018 5:05 p.m. EDT

LOS ANGELES — After four years in the job and two months of intense speculation about his employment status, Philippe Vergne has confirmed that he is leaving his post as director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, according to a statement from the museum.

The statement says that the museum board and Vergne “have mutually elected not to renew Mr. Vergne’s contract when it expires in March 2019.” (He had a five-year contract.) Combined with its chief curator leaving in March, this exit creates a power vacuum at the museum, which has already reinvented itself more than once over the last decade.

The museum has an unusual number of artists on its board, including Catherine Opie, Mark Bradford, Mark Grotjahn, Barbara Kruger and John Baldessari, and several are now taking an active role in the leadership-planning process. “A search committee for a new director has been formed, and there are artists from the board on that committee,” the museum spokeswoman, Sarah Stifler, confirmed. “Artists plural,” she noted.

Vergne, 52, had replaced Jeffrey Deitch, a New York gallerist whose tenure leading the museum, following its 2008 financial crisis, was scrutinized and frequently controversial. Vergne, who is French-born, seemed to be a stabilizing presence. A likable leader, he rebuilt staff from a low of 42 full-time employees in 2014 to a total of 60 today.

But Vergne did not have much visible success as a fundraiser: a capital campaign goal of $150 million set shortly before his arrival was never met, and the endowment now stands at about $125 million. Before working for MOCA, Vergne was director of the Dia Art Foundation for six years, during which time he tried but failed to raise funding for a new Manhattan building. He also came under fire for deaccessioning $38.4 million worth of art.

And Vergne’s firing this March of the chief curator, Helen Molesworth, became an embarrassment for the museum. Known for her acclaimed shows of Kerry James Marshall and Anna Maria Maiolino (and for not supporting an upcoming show of Grotjahn, a board favorite), Molesworth was fired suddenly, for reasons that were never made clear, with the media spreading the news of her departure before a short official museum statement was made. Vergne never issued a public statement on the decision.

Asked whether Molesworth’s dismissal played a role in the ending of Vergne’s contract, Stifler said, “Conversations between the board and Philippe regarding this decision are confidential; it’s information I’m not privy to.”

The timeline for Vergne’s departure is not clear, but he spoke of a commitment to staying involved during the search process. “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 noted in the statement. “I look forward to working with the Board and the museum to assure a smooth and orderly transition.”