Philippe Vergne’s Path to MOCA Paved by Maria Seferian and Team

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Philippe Vergne will take up the post of director at MOCA This coming Monday, amidst high hopes for the museum’s restart. And Vergne starts his new job with MOCA in far better financial shape than in a long while, thanks to a campaign helmed by Maria Seferian and team. DnA spoke with Seferian about her experience as interim director, just before she hands off the reins to the new chief.

Hashimoto and VergneThis coming Monday, Philippe Vergne will take up the post of director at MOCA. He made a first public appearance last week at the opening of Jacob Hashimoto’s Gas Giant, a space-altering installation of gently swaying, miniature kite-like shapes suspended on thin wires from the high ceiling to evoke clouds or perhaps an upside-down abstract garden (below right.)

At that opening, curious attendees swirled around Vergne (with Hashimoto in photo, left), a lanky, bespectacled man with a mop of reddish hair, an amused twinkle and the air of an artist or antiquarian more than an administrator. People were eager to meet and greet this French transplant — via New York — in whom are invested high hopes for MOCA’s restart.

But also present at the opening was the interim director, Maria Seferian (resplendent in gold jacket, below left, talking with MOCA senior curator Alma Ruiz.)

Seferian is a partner in the LA law firm of Munger, Tolles & Olson, and a MOCA board member.

artworkShe has quietly managed the museum for the past few months, overseeing an intensive fundraising campaign launched last March — when LACMA made a play for taking over MOCA — and helping orchestrate the search for a new director.

As a result of efforts by Seferian, fellow boardmembers and MOCA staffers, Vergne starts his new job with MOCA in far better shape than when Jeffrey Deitch was named to the same position back in 2010.

Deitch arrived not long after the museum hit a nadir in 2008, having fallen into deep debt, surviving by drawing down its endowment, and being saved from the abyss by a $30 million gift from Eli Broad, the former chairman of the museum’s board.

Now, the endowment has been replenished to the tune of $100 million.

Starting Monday, all eyes will be on Vergne. Before she departs however, DnA was eager to learn more about Maria Seferian, an accidental museum director who has never sought the spotlight. Following is an interview conducted by phone this week.

Maria Seferian: I’m not a typical museum director with a PhD in art history. I was trained as a corporate lawyer specializing in mergers and acquisitions, eg. buying and selling companies. I’ve been working with MOCA since 2008 when I got involved on the legal end to help steer it through the challenges it was facing.

We ultimately agreed to enter into an agreement with the Broad Foundation in 2008; the foundation gave a huge gift in 2008, which helped to bridge the museum.

Since that time I’ve stayed close to the museum, assisting it with corporate governance issues, and major initiatives like the creation of MOCAtv. At the time we were the only museum and the only nonprofit to be part of YouTube’s original channels initiative.

Then in 2013 I helped structure some of the major initiatives including the recent endowment campaign.

How challenging was that?

If you stop and think what we accomplished — in March 2013 the board agreed to launch an unprecedented endowment campaign. We did the opposite of what you are advised to do: don’t put a time period to it, do it from position of strength, do it when you have a director in place and a vision to build the campaign around.

We did it in less than nine months and with no director consistently throughout that nine-month period. To put together this kind of campaign you’d typically hire more staff and prepare at length for it, whereas our campaign grew out of an impassioned board meeting and committed donors.

How did you become interim director?

The endowment campaign began in March.  After Jeffrey announced he was leaving, in July, the board also immediately started a search committee for the new director, with Joel Wachs and fourteen individuals including board members and artists.

Then the co-chairs asked if I would step in to help, and I said I would do it on one condition, that I not get paid. I also discussed it with my partners at Munger, Tolles & Olson and my clients, who were all very supportive.I was honored to be asked and I said to my partners, I have to do this, this museum is too important to the city. I felt compelled and excited to help. It’s not that often one has an opportunity to make such a meaningful contribution. I feel sincerely privileged to have had the opportunity.I am attached to the success of the museum, and appreciate the opportunity to have worked closely with the staff, who have also been working very hard.  When I first started, I was encouraged because there is so much support– the community was routing for us.

Did you always plan on being a lawyer or were you ever interested in working in the art world?

I’ve always loved art and literature, but I also love being a lawyer.  I am not one of those lawyers who hates being a lawyer, but I happen to also love art and music. In terms of the legal work I do for museums and all other clients, it helps to understand a client’s business when you are advising them.

My formative years were in Chicago, I went to school in Illinois and Massachusetts, then lived in New York and then moved to LA and right away got involved with the California Lawyers for the Arts.

I would say that if I was an artist I would move to LA; there is the space here for inventiveness, there’s so much going on LA right now.

Why does MOCA matter so much to you?

MOCA is a Los Angeles treasure! And I believe that it’s vital to make MOCA’s collection and art being made by some of the most important artists today, accessible to the widest possible audience.

To go back to Philippe, he has a vision of maintaining MOCA as an artists’ museum; this is important for the city and internationally.

Will MOCA maintain (Deitch) initiatives like MOCAtv?

MOCAtv will be maintained. People who may have never set foot inside a museum can see contemporary art. Of the 6 million views on MOCAtv half are international – in Europe and Asia.

Have you enjoyed your role as interim director?

Yes absolutely. We all worked so hard and were so busy during the month of December, but I don’t want to diminish the contributions of the staff and the many trustees who helped make this happen including David Johnson and Maria Bell, the former co-chairs, Maurice Mariano and Lilly Tartikoff Karatz, the new co-chairs, Fred Sands, Eugenio Lopez, Jeffrey Soros, and the many trustees and other donors that stepped up in a huge way, we got close to 100 percent participation from the board.  We were all in it together; My contribution was made alongside theirs.

Where does this leave Eli Broad?

Eli has been an incredible supporter. Just in the last five years, he’s contributed over 30 million plus as part of the endowment campaign. He is busy with his own museum but he remains very supportive. We are grateful to Eli for what he’s done but we also have so many other major donors, like Maurice Marciano, Eugenio Lopez, Lillian Lovelace, and many, many others, not to mention the trustees and life trustees who, with their families, have given us some of our most important works in our collection.  We are not a one-donor museum.

Now we have Maurice Marciano and Lilly Tartikoff Karatz, the two new co-chairs, and I am excited to work with both of them. I am optimistic.

What are you doing in your last week?

I am working very closely with Philippe Vergne, the staff and the board on the transition. I don’t spend my time being a lawyer here, we have other lawyers to do the legal work, I’m focusing on the business operations; Problems come up daily that need a solution, and it’s not always a legal solution that needs to be found.

I’m excited for Philippe to take over. I am proud of what we accomplished and now I am looking forward to going back to my practice and watching Philippe succeed. Philippe is terrific.

Also present at the opening Friday evening were some of the MOCA staffers who have helped keep the MOCA ship afloat as it sailed the vicissitudes of the various financial and political crises in the course of last two directorships. From left, MOCA senior curator Alma Ruiz, shows David and Susan Gersh the Hashimoto installation; right, Veridiana Pontes, director of development for MOCA, stands with Merry Norris, right of picture, a collector and art consultant who helped spearhead MOCA’s founding 35 years ago; Maria Seferian stands with Eva Seta, Communications Coordinator; Lyn Winter, a French and Russian-speaking Brit who directs communications for MOCA, stands right of Philippe Vergne. Photographs by Rochelle Brodin.

Not shown but also part of MOCA’s survival team: Susan Jenkins, Director of Exhibition Management; Catherine Arias, Senior Manager, Visitor Experience; Michael Harrison, COO and CFO; Bennett Simpson, Curator; Emma Reeves and John Toba, producers, MOCAtv; Bret Nicely, Associate Director of Digital Media; Paula Morehouse, Special Events Manager.