Tyler Green
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Reason for concern (already) at Vergne’s MOCA?

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In an interview with the Los Angeles Times published yesterday, incoming MOCA director Philippe Vergne opened the door to deaccessioning works from MOCA’s famed collection. Here’s the key passage:

One way Vergne managed his budget at Dia drew criticism. Last year, Dia announced that it would auction pieces of its collection, including works by Cy Twombly, to acquire artworks that have been on loan to Dia:Beacon. Two of Dia’s founders filed a lawsuit to block the auction, which they subsequently withdrew; a brother of one of the founders wrote Vergne a letter of protest that became public.

Vergne defends the decision and said the artworks purchased were integral to Dia’s history. The criticism over selling the Twombly was “totally fair,” he said, but he and his colleagues studied Dia’s collection and looked at its strengths and its redundancies.

“We’re a little bit like gardeners — there is no growth without pruning,” he said.

Vergne said he doesn’t know MOCA’s collection well enough to know if it too needs “pruning.”

There are lots of things that Dia did not do well under Vergne’s leadership. It mishandled its stewardship of its greatest masterpiece, Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. After a 2009 announcement that it would return to New York City, Dia has been slow to re-emerge as a significant contemporary art presence there. (In 2012, Dia told the NYT that construction would begin in the spring of 2014.) But perhaps worst of all, Vergne spearheaded the 2013 deaccessioning of contemporary art masterpieces from Dia’s collection. That jettisoning of the sort of major artworks that should define a collecting institution such as Dia was a destructive, self-inflicted error.

In explaining his Dia deaccessioning, Vergne used language similar to that which he used in yesterday’s LAT: “Dia cannot be a mausoleum,” he told the NYT. “It needs to grow and develop.” And in the LAT: “There is no growth without pruning,” after which Vergne indicated that “pruning” might be ‘needed.’ (‘Needed’ was the LAT’s word, not Vergne’s.)

Vergne’s defense of his Dia deaccessioning was troubling then, and it sounds worse now. First, contrary to the straw-man Vergne created, collecting institutions are not mausoleums. They are our storehouses of the best cultural objects that matter most. Traditionally museums have activated those storehouses — or to use Vergne’s unclear-on-the-concept locution: they have activated their mausoleums — through exhibition, scholarship, and study. If Vergne is arguing against conservatism in museum practice, that’s eyebrow-raising. Museums should be extremely conservative when it comes to caring for their objects. That goes for museum conservation, exhibition and collection policies. Let the art market be go-go nutty; contemporary art museums should be deliberate and steady.

Both last year and perhaps again in yesterday’s LAT, Vergne seemed to misunderstand how museums “grow.” The traditional, time-tested way for art museums to expand their capabilities, collections, programming and scholarship is fundraising. If you can’t raise the money to do something you want to do, you don’t do it. At Dia, Vergne sold off art to fuel Dia’s wants. Then he re-defined self-wounding as growth.

Vergne’s record at Dia and what he told the LAT provide reason to be concerned about how he may value MOCA’s collection, the best contemporary collection at any American contemporary art museum. (You can bet that the museo-vultures at the New York auction houses just put Vergne on speed-dial.) After a half-decade of self-decimation, MOCA’s collection is essentially what remains. It is why after years of turmoil and poor decision-making at both the board and staff levels, the institution still exists. MOCA’s collection isn’t just excellent, it’s deep in many key post-war areas: No other art museum boasts MOCA’s strength in artists such as Jean Fautrier, Robert Rauschenberg and Antoni Tapies. I hope that Vergne and MOCA’s board consider that type of depth a primary strength.

Furthermore, given that our understanding of significance rises and falls more in the most recent art than in, say, 17thC art, contemporary art institutions in general should be extremely reticent to deaccession. When they do, they must be arguing from an unimpeachable position. MOCA is not in any kind of position to consider any level of deaccessioning: It is the most curatorially under-staffed art museum in America. It has yet to emerge from a prolonged period of instability. MOCA isn’t close to having re-established the expertise or institutional authority to consider even the most minor deaccessioning.

As soon as possible, Vergne and MOCA’s board should issue a joint statement expressing that MOCA will not deaccession or “prune” the collection to enable MOCA’s future “growth.” At some point MOCA’s leadership needs to help us all stop worrying about it.

[Image via Flickr user Pieter Edelman.]

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  1. David M. says:

    Interesting that the Met’s director used some of the same language in the NYT just a few years ago:

    –“It’s sometimes portrayed in the press as if we’re trading houses, with objects going in and going out,” said the museum’s director, Thomas P. Campbell. “That’s not the case. It’s like a gardener pruning a tree over a long period of time. Deaccessioning is a healthy part of the management of any museum collection. We’re not playing the market.”(1.26.11)–

    Personally, I think there’s some truth to what both directors are saying. Certainly there are many, many ways that they could screw up, but I also think that deaccessioning some pieces for the good of the museum on the whole doesn’t always have to be evil, and could even be beneficial if done right.

  2. Tom says:

    Pruning, or whatever you want to call it, is indeed an acceptable part of museum practice — especially for museums that were dumping grounds in the days when everything was accepted for any reason. But that’s not the same as ‘playing the market’ — which is, indeed, what museums have been doing for several decades. There’s a difference between getting rid of really worthless stuff and deciding to “trade up” (as in George Carlin’s wonderful dog vignette). I guess playing in the market in the same manner as their trustees do gives museum directors and curators street cred with their bosses. The concept of a museum as an archive has gradually been devalued, alas. Museum directors seem to be afraid that someone will think they are in charge of a “museum” — as the word is insultingly used to describe those terrible orchestras that play Beethoven and theatres that feature Shakespeare.

  3. Karen says:

    David and Tom (and Campbell) are correct, generally speaking. That’s why museums have policies in place to guide collection management, including sales or deaccessions. But neither addresses the specific sale of art from Dia, which is the case at hand. That sale was a terrible mistake.

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