Getting to know Philippe Vergne, the new director of the Serralves Museum
“Museums are places where you welcome the world”
On Monday, 29 April, the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art presented its new director, Philippe Vergne (1966, Troyes).
With a career deeply associated with contemporary art, the man whose presence and character are unquestionably noteworthy began as a curator in France and his leadership experience in different international institutions covers a time span of twenty-five years. His first incursion in the field is particularly remarkable, when he, only at the age of twenty-seven, became the first director of the Musée d’Art Contemporain de Marseille between 1994 and 1997. He then launched his career in the United States of America, assuming, for a decade, the position of deputy director and chief curator of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. After that, he took charge of the Day Art Foundation in New York, from 2008 to 2014, where he distinguished himself for his risky, irreverent and successful actions. Most recently, he was part of the administration of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, a position he kept until March of this year.
Vergne’s project in this last entity was, briefly put, geared towards financial stability and greater audiences, valuing the artistic project and the educational service. The curator reveals particular care and interest for the audience and for its contact with culture and art. He acknowledges the value of museums as sites of knowledge and considers that these artistic dwellings must be characterized by diversity, multidisciplinarity and inclusion.
Today, in the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art, those three cornerstones are the Philippe Vergne’s key objectives for the Portuguese institution. He declares that he has yet to have an established activity plan, having the intent, as we speak, to continue the programming that has already been defined and presented. Nevertheless, he ensures that he has already plenty of ideas and that his presence will be noticed. To do so, while emphasizing that artists are the ones who know the world better, the new director thinks it is important to listen to the national creators about what is being done and thought. Having in mind that the artistic creation is a strong reflection of the context around it, he believes that each institution must work and be worked in its own way, in relation to its location, time, situation, context and society. Therefore, he establishes as his duty to properly know the country, the city and what is being conducted at the cultural and artistic levels, stating that this is the only way to define and develop the best strategies, not only for the museum, but also for the artists themselves and the public. At the same time, he emphasizes Portugal’s international position, which is an attraction for artists from different backgrounds.
Philippe Vergne explains that it was the institution’s nature, as well as its spatial context, the park and Álvaro Siza Vieira’s architecture, that lured him in and influenced his final decision. Also, the museum collection impressed and interested him. He points out that, in proportion to the diversity of the Serralves gardens, in which we can find around 8000 specimens of plants with different characteristics and nationalities, the artistic program must have a significant multiplicity, and one can infer that it will be practical, disciplinary, expressive and aesthetic.
Talking to Umbigo, the director affirms the plan to bring the world to Serralves and to Oporto, while taking Serralves to the world.
The President of the Association, Ana Pinho, says that this is the “right person to consummate Serralves’s ambition” and “to ensure the growth of the museum at an international level”. Philippe Vergne’s rigorous election process was attended by renowned directors of cultural institutions, including Suzanne Cotter, director of Serralves from 2013 to 2017, as well as the prominent Frances Morris, Tate Modern’s current director.
It must be added that the new director succeeds João Ribas and, as such, joins an institution that, in recent times, challenged canons and looked for newness in the way a museum acts, speaks and affirms itself as a platform of growth, dissemination and experimentation of contemporary art. Philippe Vergne arrives with an avant-garde impetus, unleashing and exploring new developing future-driven paths. The expectation is to see the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art following that course. A new, exciting chapter is now beginning, as the institution celebrates its thirtieth anniversary.