by Betsy Carpenter, Doryun Chong, Peter Eleey, Siri Engberg, and Yasmil Raymond, visual arts curators
Philippe Vergne is a brilliant curator and that rare combination of sparkling intellect, humor, and grace. He has an infectious love of art and an incredible, innate gift for working with artists–understanding them, connecting with their creative process, and communicating that to audiences in fresh, sensitive, and unexpected ways. He absolutely believes that a contemporary art center can and must keep the artist at the core of its thinking, a vision that has gone far in shaping our department, our exhibitions, our collection, our institution, and has had significant impact on artists themselves. He also fiercely believes that a museum is a place where artists and their audiences share, around works of art, their uncertainties and dreams and has strove to make and protect an environment at the Walker where, on scales large and small, everyone could experiment.
Philippe excels at the basic, but difficult, art of installation, and organized some of the most essential Walker exhibitions of the last decade. The highlights include: Let’s Entertain: Life’s Guilty Pleasures (2000), How Latitudes Become Forms: Art in a Global Age (2003), Shadowlands: An Exhibition as a Film (2005), House of Oracles: A Huang Yong Ping Retrospective (2005), Cameron Jamie (2006), and Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love (2007). If there is a trademark to his exhibitions, it is that they consistently invite us to see the familiar in a new light, and make the unknown positively beguiling. In his tenure here, he has been able to keep sight of both the Walker’s edge and its rich history; its reputation as a veritable petri dish for young artists, filmmakers, and performers; and its extraordinary collection, which has at its core a mandate to form relationships with artists for life. He immeasurably enriched the Walker’s collection by bringing important young and emerging as well as established and historical artists’ works, from around the world.
His aspirations, however, were always broader than whatever single project or acquisition he worked on, because they involved those of the larger institution. The ambitions of his staff became his own. He embodied so many aspects of the work we do, and the values that underscore that work. In the trust he bestowed upon his colleagues, the respect he accords his audiences, the faith he places in artists, and the vigor of his curiosity, he set a simple and powerful example. All of this he did with a remarkable degree of modesty, an incisive wit, and a spirit of generosity.
Philippe has been the perfect mentor, colleague, and friend for all of us over the past years. He encouraged us to take greater and greater creative risks and keep “ gambling” to build upon the Walker’s legacy of risk-taking and experimentation. At the same time, we have relished his ingenious and adventurous mind, hilariously quirky and unashamedly egalitarian view of the world. It is obvious that we are “ not dancing” (as he often says) about his departure, nor can we express our appreciation by making him a knight. The French government already did so in 2004 when it honored him with the medal of the Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters. What he will forever have from us is our respect, admiration, gratitude, and love.
Photo: Philippe Vergne with Judy Dayton, long-time Walker supporter