Philippe Vergne is the new artistic director of Serralves Museum. After Marseille and Los Angeles, the Frenchman has arrived in Porto to lead one of the country’s most important cultural institutions.
He certainly looks the part. Sharply dressed, rounded spectacles, floppy hair, heavy French accent. Everything about Philippe Vergne beams “art curator”. More telling than his personal style is his impressive CV. An intimate habitué of the global art scene for three decades, he has notched up curatorial stints everywhere from the Musée d’art Contemporain in Marseille to The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Since April last year, this pan-Atlantic Frenchman has been bringing his own inclusive, internationalist style to the top job at Serralves Contemporary Art Museum in Porto – one of Portugal’s leading arts institutions.
He arrives at a stimulating time in the city’s creative trajectory, with a succession of new galleries opening up and exciting artistic voices emerging. “Uncompromising”, “political” and “very experimental” are among the phrase Vergne chooses to describe the art scene in his adopted new home. As someone whose love of art has taken him to every corner of the world, he identifies in Portugal’s artists something of the idiosyncrasy and confidence that characterises much of contemporary Mexican and Brazilian art.
“Traditional mediums like painting and sculpture do not dominate the production here, which makes it very interesting and gives it a very strong identity when it comes to art.” Rather than arriving with a fixed curatorial vision, Vergne sees his task at Serralves as one of “contextualising” contemporary Portuguese art. In tune with his own background (and that of Serralves’s historic focus), this involves a blending of the domestic with the international. Initial exhibitions under Vergne’s directorship provide a flavour of what’s to come. Examples range from a retrospective of the recently deceased Portuguese filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira to a series of nature-inspired installations by Danish-Icelandic sculptor Olafur Eliasson.
Vergne’s curatorial style may be light touch, but it is not without passion or principles. One important theme throughout his career is a commitment to inclusion. He describes it as a gut instinct (“I guess I just don’t like exclusion”). But it’s also common-sensical. Vergne loves art and wants others to love it too. Hiding away in self-congratulatory huddles will never cut it.
As he notes, successful shows are the ones that “offer people something they can connect with”. That doesn’t mean dumbing down or taking the radical edge off what is, by its nature, a challenging art form. Confronting audiences is no bad thing, he says. But they need comforting too. “My goal is to make sure that people are comfortable with what they do not understand. Because if you are comfortable with forms, ideas and cultures that you do not understand, then you are more open to the world.”
It’s a lesson born out of his own experience of travelling the world. A passionate believer in the credo about travel opening the mind, he thinks little of flying to New York to catch a museum opening or jetting off to Istanbul for the city’s biennial. Such trips are “as a worker, not a tourist”, he is quick to point out, yet he readily admits the privilege that his choice of career offers. With the “demanding rewards” of his global travel as a curator come obligations to his audiences, he says: namely, “translating” his encounters back into his programming.
No surprise, Vergne is no idle traveller. Soon as he’s in his seat, he’s reaching into his bag for a book. Reading, he insists, is an intrinsic part of his job. The contents of his reading lists are strongly influenced by the particular artists he is working with at the time. “Artists are such a great source of information, so I’m always interested to know what kinds of films they are watching or what books they are reading. Because if you don’t enter their brain, you can’t really translate their work.”
A few years back, he pushed that theory to the test, inviting US installation artist Doug Aitken on a multi-day road-trip across California. Their ostensible objective was to see Michael Heizer’s classic piece of land art in the Nevada desert. For Vergne, however, the experience was always as much about chatting through ideas and taking inspiration from the landscape. Aitken’s subsequent exhibition, shown under Vergne’s stewardship in Los Angeles, included an underwater pavilion accessible only to visitors willing to scuba-dive – a kooky idea that grew out of a detour the pair made to Catalina Island off the Californian coast.
Asked if he has found somewhere similar inspiring in Porto, he points immediately to Portuguese architect Álvaro Siza’s classic 1963 cliffside creation, Casa de Chá da Boa Nova. Although an architectural marvel in its own right, it is the building’s juxtaposition with its immediate surroundings that most strikes Vergne. Located on the coast just to the north of Porto in the town of Leça da Palmeira, Siza’s ultra-modernist project (now home to the Boa Nova restaurant, headed by chef Rui Paula) has a white-washed chapel to one side and an industrial refinery right behind. “When you go there, there’s this contrast between modernity, tradition and industry that I find it visually absolutely stunning.”
The view from Vergne’s office into Serralves lush sculpture park isn’t too shabby either. Porto’s art-loving visitors will hope that the vista entrances this globe-trotting Frenchman for many years to come.
by Oliver Balch /// photo Rui Duarte Silva / Expresso
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