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French Museum’s Potential Ouster of Star Director Generates Ire

Questions about who will next lead Montpellier Contemporain, a museum in southern France that is home to cutting-edge contemporary art exhibitions, are starting to swirl after revelations that its current director, Nicolas Bourriaud, may not be in the running to lead the institution when his contract ends in April.

Last week, Le Quotidien de l’Art reported that Montpellier’s newly elected mayor, Michaël Delafosse, had picked two finalists for the directorship post at Montpellier Contemporain (known as Mo.Co for short). Bourriaud was not among them, rendering it doubtful that the museum would renew his contract. According to Le Monde, Mo.Co’s board of directors is expected to meet on Tuesday to discuss the future of the museum, which last year was the subject of scrutiny because of its attendance figures.

On Saturday, Bourriaud wrote on Facebook, “Now I am out of the institution I created in Montpellier.”

Bourriaud is a closely watched figure in the international art circuit. He cofounded the Palais de Tokyo, one of Paris’s most important contemporary art institutions, in 1999, and he has been credited with defining relational aesthetics, a kind of art that exists mainly in the form of conversations and interactions, with Philippe Parreno and Rirkrit Tiravanija among its purveyors. Bourriaud also curated the 2019 edition of the Istanbul Biennial, and was a curator at Tate Britain in London from 2007 to 2010. In 2015, he became the subject of controversy when he was fired from his position as director of the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris.

Mo.Co was founded in 2019 with Bourriaud at the helm, and it essentially combines three institutions: the city’s Ecole Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, the art center La Panacée, and the Hôtel des Beaux-Arts. The project to build Mo.Co cost €6.9 million, and was funded by the city of Montpellier and the French state. In November, Delafosse said he was considering “reorienting” the museum’s budget after Mo.Co failed to bring in as many visitors as was initially expected. In 2020, the city of Montpellier was forced to give the museum a bailout of €180,000 after Mo.Co faced a deficit as a result of drawing in 30,000 fewer visitors than it had expected. Bourriaud said that the pandemic had caused the disappointing attendance figures.

A spokesperson for Mo.Co did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.

After reports of Bourriaud’s potential ouster appeared in the French press, more than 160 students at the Ecole Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Montpellier signed an open letter decrying the news. “We denounce this way of removing an eminence of contemporary culture through an undemocratic process,” they wrote.

According to Le Quotidien de l’Art, the two candidates up for the position are Ashok Adicéam and Numa Hambursin. Adicéam formerly led top collector Budi Tek’s Yuz Museum in Shanghai, and Hambursin currently heads up Cannes’s modern and contemporary art center. Adicéam has proposed a Mo.Co program geared more around feminist and ecological concerns, and Hambursin is arguing for a “Mo.Co 2.0” that will allow for more solo exhibitions.

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