Interview Philippe Vergne, Director of the Dia Art Foundation

April 3, 2013 | By Thomas Delamarre

Philippe Vergne, director of the Dia Art Foundation in New York since 2008, has consistently rethought the role of both the curator and the museum since his early work at the Walker Art Center. He was recently appointed to the committee for the revamped Festival international d'art de Toulouse. In the following interview Vergne discusses his role within the Festival international d'art de Toulouse, along with broader questions like the contemporary artists' relationship to cultural institutions and the role of national identity and citizenship in today's art world.


Thomas Delamarre: The Printemps de Septembre in Toulouse (France) has become the Festival international d'art de Toulouse, the first edition of which will take place in May and June of this year. You have been asked to join the artistic committee of the festival, together with other international leading figures in the art world. Could you explain the role of this committee in conjunction with the director and artist Jean-Marc Bustamante?

Philippe Vergne: I will explain this role as I understand it. To go back, Jean-Marc Bustamante approached a few of us, in London, in Ukraine, in France, to describe his project, what he was trying to achieve in Toulouse. He wanted to make this event more international and to benefit from the connections, the knowledge, the expertise of a group of people with whom he had affinities. At the beginning, I wondered if I would have enough time for this. But then Jean-Marc explained to us it was a kind of steering committee: it is not being a curator, it is more like being on a board, brainstorming, giving directions - some will be followed, some will not – like a forum for conversation. Because of his attachment to Toulouse I think he wanted to provide the city with an event that might not exist in France yet. When the conversation started, what was attractive to me was that the chief curator is an artist, an artist I know and an artist I like. He also mentioned that the artist would be at the center, the artist would come first: that for me is what is often missing because we have been trained to think institutionally, and to think about institutions before the artists. So this is how I see the role of the committee: conversations with the group, visits to locations in the city, brainstorming... It is not a curatorial role, it is a think-tank.

TD: So actually you just mentioned my second question. The subtitle of the festival is "Artist comes first": obviously, this motto could apply to the Dia Art Foundation and the way it supports and presents artists' works. How does this idea become a reality when conceiving projects and exhibitions?

PV: It means if the building is on fire, we have to save the artist!

For me and through our conversations in Paris with Jean-Marc and the committee, I don’t think it is something you solve systematically, I don’t think there is a recipe for this. It is a way of being as an institution. It means not compromising, not putting the artist in circumstances where he would have, one way or the other, to compromise the integrity of his work. I think it is a good premise. It can be applied to Dia and this is also why I was interested to see if it could work somewhere else. This is how we can reinvent a visual language, by not over determining the outcome of a project. At Dia, we very rarely come to an artist and say we have a certain schedule, like 3 months, let’s do something. It is a process, happening with conversations, this is how we worked with Jean-Luc Moulène. He came here with no project in mind. And then, little by little, desires started to appear, through ideas and conversations, it grew in an organic way. It is beyond curating, it is really pushing, encouraging an artist to go in a direction that he might not have taken before.

I think the project we are doing with Thomas Hirschhorn, the Gramsci Monument, is a good example of that. Thomas knows precisely what he wants, and if you don’t put the artist first, the project is not going to happen. It means that instead of bending the artist’s desire, to a certain extent, we have to bend the institution’s rules to make it happen. And that is really important for me, it forces us to be as flexible as we can, so the project happens on the artist’s terms, on the artist’s time. It happens in a territory of flexibility, in many ways it is more being a producer than a curator.

TD: As a Frenchman working in an American institution here in the US, does the question of nationality ever interfere with the way you think about artists and art in general?

PV: I sold my nationality on eBay... But nobody bought it! It is still available…

For me, I never thought that art and flags work well together. I always go back to ‘artist first’: artists and art are more important than national belonging, which is different than national identity. Because national identity is part of Jean-Luc’s work [Jean-Luc Moulène]: the way he thinks, the way he conceives his work, is really embedded in his identity as the French intellectual who he is. I always resisted thinking in terms of geography: I prefer to think of artists who change our conventional understanding of art, rather than artists who amplify or contribute to the promotion of a national culture. The artist Carl Andre, with whom we are preparing a retrospective, said: “Art is what we do, culture is what is done to us.” Art does not come with national colors. It is dangerous to limit, to look at art with the flag. For a culture, a civilization, to be able to say that its role is to promote passages, to promote diversity, and I don’t want it to be a global cliché, but it only makes it more interesting.

TD: Thank you.

PV: Thank you. Now I am going to lose my passport…

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