Oh Happy Dia

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There’s one less American art world job open today. Dia Art Foundation announced yesterday that Philippe Vergne, the deputy director of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, will come on board as director on September 15. He replaces Jeffrey Weiss, the former National Gallery curator who left the Dia job after just nine months, saying he wanted to be a curator and scholar, not an administrator.

I was at the Museum of Modern Art last night for a farewell reception for John Elderfield, the MOMA chief curator of painting and sculpture, who’s retiring. Inevitably some of the conversation turned to who could possibly replace him. One of many names you’d hear mentioned occasionally in recent months was Vergne’s. He co-curated the 2006 Whitney Biennial — I’m not sure if that counts as a qualification — but also last year’s great Kara Walker retrospective.

From the point of view of New York museum intrigue, it also mattered that Vergne’s former boss, the Walker’s ex-director Kathy Halbreich, migrated over to MOMA last year for the new position of associate director, a free ranging job with emphasis on sharpening MOMA’s attention to contemporary art. (Vergne had once been considered a candidate to succeed Halbreich as director of the Walker, but that job went instead to Olga Viso of the Hirshhorn.) No one is sure yet how Halbreich will affect the authority of MOMA’s curators to set the agenda for their own departments in the areas of exhibition, collecting and even how they display their permanent collections. To ease her own transition she might might have been glad to have an old friend in MOMA’s most important curatorial post.

Meanwhile, one of Vergne’s first headaches will be to find a way to bring Dia back to Manhattan, where it’s gone missing since the Foundation closed its space in Chelsea four years ago and retreated to its big new location in Beacon, a Hudson River town north of New York. (It also oversees several far flung site specific art projects, like Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty in the Great Salt Lake in Utah.) Even in New York, the real estate market is cooling. But Dia no longer has Leonard Riggio, its former board chairman and biggest check writer. And in a recession, if that’s what we’re in, the competition for big donors is fiercer than ever.

Welcome to New York, Philippe. Or at least for now to Beacon.

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