Famed Art Philosopher Nicolas Bourriaud Has Been Ousted From the Museum He Founded in Favor of a More Populist Replacement

Following a dramatic board meeting, Numa Hambursin has been elected to replace Bourriaud at the helm of Montpellier Contemporain.

Nicolas Bourriaud. Photo ©Henry Roy.

The French writer and curator Nicolas Bourriaud, who co-founded the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, has been ousted from the museum he founded in Montpellier as the city’s new mayor vows to open up its programming to more populist exhibitions.

The decision came as a board meeting yesterday led to the controversial appointment of curator Numa Hambursin as Bourriaud’s replacement at the head of Montpellier Contemporain (MoCo). The three-pronged institution encompasses an art school, a contemporary art center, and its newest arm, founded by Bourriaud, the Hôtel des Collections, a venue dedicated to exhibiting public and private collections.

The news of Bourriaud’s ousting comes after the French city’s new mayor, Michaël Delafosse, criticized the €6 million annual budget that his predecessor, Philippe Saurel, granted to the institution, as well as a shortfall in attendance since its opening in 2019. 

Late last year, Delafosse launched an open call to repurpose some of the museum’s spaces, and expressed interest in shaking up its programming, such as including shows focused on street art, which is popular in the region. Nearly 1,400 artists and other creatives signed a petition defending Bourriaud and rebutting comments from the mayor that the institution was “elitist.”

During the divisive board meeting the city broke with protocol requiring a two-thirds majority vote to elect a new director for the public institution and replaced Bourriaud with Hambursin anyway.

Before the meeting, the front-runner for the job was thought to be Ashok Adicéam, an artistic director who has previously run institutions in France and abroad, including the private museums of Bernard Magrez and Budi Tek, and currently an advisor to Nantes’s École des Beaux-Arts.

Hambursin, the director of Cannes’s modern and contemporary art center and artistic director of the Helenis Corporate Foundation, was also in the running. At the board meeting on Tuesday, Céline Kopp, director and chief curator at the Triangle art center in Marseille, also presented a proposal for the institution. Bourriaud gesturally applied for a second term at the helm.

Nineteen votes were cast in total, with Hambursin coming out ahead with 12 votes, Adicéam followed with six votes, with the remaining vote cast for Kopp. Bourriaud received none. (Knowing the likely outcome of the vote, his team had agreed in advance to vote use their votes towards Adicéam).

The controversial decision to name Hambursin as Bourriaud’s replacement, despite his 12 votes not quite meeting the two-thirds majority requirement (which would have been 12.66), has some board and community members crying foul.

Sources close to the institution told Artnet News that board members found out about Hambursin’s appointment through the press. One meeting attendee pointed out that Hambursin was a close friend of the mayor and had supported his election campaign. Another source alleged that all of the votes for Hambursin, which were cast blind, originated from public and state authorities, and not representatives from the institution. 

For his part, Bourriaud has defended the institution he conceived. Speaking to Artnet News last year, the curator said that attendance numbers were disrupted by closures relating to the “yellow vest” protests in 2019, followed by the onset of the pandemic last year. Since the Hôtel des Collections opened in summer 2019, all three institutions that make up MoCo were only open at the same time for a total of six months.

Following the board meeting yesterday, Bourriaud also rebutted the budgetary concerns cited by the mayor: “The budget is €6 million for three institutions including an art school, which is far from being extravagant,” he told Artnet News, adding that it is a matter of public record that the institution did not spend anything more than the budget voted on by the board for 2019.

“Budget is just an excuse,” Bourriaud said. “The mayor was against this project from scratch. Then, anything goes to criticize it.”

Hambursin’s proposal for what he has dubbed “Mo.Co 2.0” identified the Hôtel des Collections as a “weak link” and planned to “open up” its programming, arguing that a public establishment should not be dedicated to “the sole purpose of the financial gain of private groups,” according to the French publication Le Quotidien de l’Art, which viewed the proposals ahead of the meeting. Hambursin’s plans included solo exhibitions of international artists such as Cecily Brown and Kader Attia, a street art festival, and exhibitions by artists from Kehinde Wiley’s Black Rock residency in Dakar. 

A spokesperson for Montpellier Contemporain declined to comment.

The programming currently on the schedule will be Bourriaud’s last. The institution will present exhibitions of work by Marylin Minter and Betty Tompkins at the contemporary art center, La Panacée, this summer. The Hôtel des Collections will present work from the Zinsou collection, from Benin, followed by a focus on the theme of human representation from the Sandretto Re Rebaudengo Collection this fall.

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