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Dia Art Foundation Names a Curator as Its Next Director

Posted By Administration, Tuesday, June 24, 2008
Updated: Monday, January 13, 2014

After two years of flux, the Dia Art Foundation said on Monday that it had hired a prominent contemporary-art curator, Philippe Vergne, deputy director of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, as its director.

Dia's chairwoman, Nathalie de Gunzburg, said that Mr. Vergne would begin work on Sept. 15. He succeeds Jeffrey Weiss, who resigned at the end of February after just nine months in the post, saying that he felt that it did not allow him to focus enough on curatorial and scholarly work.

Among Mr. Vergne's biggest challenges will be to find a permanent exhibition space in New York City for Dia, a nonprofit institution devoted to contemporary art.

After closing its Chelsea spaces in January 2004, it had planned to open a museum at the entrance to the High Line, an abandoned railway line on the West Side of Manhattan that will become an elevated park. But Dia's board scrapped that project in the fall of 2006 after losing its longtime director, Michael Govan, who became director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and its board chairman and biggest benefactor, Leonard Riggio. (The Whitney Museum of American Art is now planning to build a satellite museum at that downtown site.)

In seeking a New York home, Dia no longer has someone like Mr. Riggio willing to write big checks, as he did when giving some $30 million for acquisitions and the creation of Dia:Beacon, a sprawling exhibition space in a former box factory in Beacon, N.Y.

But in a telephone interview Mr. Vergne, 42, said he believed Dia could rally and hold a more important place than ever in the art world. "I've always been a big fan of Dia," he said. "It's a place with an incredible history and is different than the traditional museum model. The chance to take it to a new chapter is exciting."

His first priority, he said, will be to learn as much about Dia and its culture as possible and to start scouting for a New York site. "We have to figure out what would be the ideal kind of space for Dia," he said.

Mr. Vergne is well known in the contemporary-art world. He joined the Walker as a curator in 1997 and has organized dozens of high-profile exhibitions, including the first retrospective for the Chinese artist Huang Yong Ping, a traveling exhibition that made its debut at the Walker in October 2005, and the 2006 Whitney Biennial in New York (with Chrissie Iles of the Whitney).

In the fall of 2004 Mr. Vergne was appointed director of the new Fran├žois Pinault Foundation for Contemporary Art in Paris, but resigned the next year when the foundation decided to locate in Venice instead. He returned to the Walker as its deputy director and chief curator in 2005.

In 2007 he organized "Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love," the first full survey of Ms. Walker's work. He has also been responsible for the Walker's acquisitions of works by popular living artists, including Doug Aitken, David Hammons, Thomas Hirshhorn, Pierre Huyghe and Luc Tuymans.

His departure from the Walker is unlikely to surprise the art world. When Kathy Halbreich, its director for 16 years, resigned last year, Mr. Vergne was said to have been a candidate to replace her. But the museum chose Olga Viso of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, who was named the Walker's director in September. (Ms. Halbreich is now an associate director at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.)

Mr. Vergne was also viewed as a candidate for the job of chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Modern, where John Elderfield is to retire from that post this summer.

"I have spent 11 years at the Walker; that's one-fourth of my life," Mr. Vergne said. "It's time to turn a page, and this was an offer that was difficult to refuse."

He also said he found Dia's history unusually compelling. Founded in 1974 by the German art dealer Heiner Friedrich; Mr. Friedrich's wife, the arts patron Philippa de Menil; and Helen Winkler, a Houston art historian, it is known for breaking the conventional museum mold.

The founders started out simply buying works they loved by artists like Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, Walter De Maria, Joseph Beuys, Andy Warhol, Cy Twombly, John Chamberlain and Fred Sandback. Over the years Dia has focused more closely on specific artists who rose to prominence in the 1960s and '70s, adding major sculptures by Judd, Richard Serra and Michael Heizer. It also commissioned a series of paintings by Agnes Martin.

Mr. Vergne said he hoped to fortify programming at Dia:Beacon, which opened in 2003, so that it will become a vibrant site for special exhibitions as well as a showcase for the collection.

Dia has also played a pathbreaking role in supporting ambitious public-art projects that might not interest more conventional institutions. It oversees site-specific installations like Mr. De Maria's "New York Earth Room" and "Broken Kilometer" in Manhattan; his "Lightning Field" near Quemado, N.M.; and with support from the Lannan Foundation, Mr. Heizer's "City" project near Caliente, Nev., and Robert Smithson's "Spiral Jetty" earth sculpture along the Great Salt Lake in northern Utah.

Dia also oversees the Dan Flavin Art Institute in Bridgehampton, N.Y., and works closely with Judd's Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Tex.; the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh; and the Cy Twombly Gallery in Houston.

In May 2007 Dia entered into a collaboration with the Hispanic Society of America, presenting projects by contemporary artists in the society's home on Broadway and 155th Street in Washington Heights.

Mr. Vergne said he was keen to cement relationships with artists. "The art world is changing, and there is so much we can do to work with artists today," he said, adding, "The sky's the limit."

By Carol Vogel
For The New York Times

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