You could forgive Jeffrey Deitch for looking a little shell-shocked Tuesday afternoon. After all, he had just officially made the transition from New York art impresario to Los Angeles museum director, and it hadn’t been a completely smooth one. There were the swirling rumors on Friday afternoon, then the canceled Monday-morning press conference (said to be caused by a conflict with a mayoral press conference), then the announcement and attendant flurry of journalistic attention from around the country.
On Tuesday morning, Deitch awoke to two long pieces in The New York Times, and one none-too-happy piece by L.A Times critic Christopher Knight, who began with these memorably ominous words: “Why does the Museum of Contemporary Art’s board of trustees dislike art museums?” After that, the introductory press conference, at which he was flanked by one city councilwoman, two MOCA trustees, and God (aka Eli Broad).
If Deitch, as one attendee noted afterward, seemed a little less passionate and energetic than she had expected, perhaps he was nervous, or perhaps he was beginning to wonder if this MOCA thing was such a great idea after all. (After agreeing to close down his entire New York operation, Deitch Projects, so as to remove that particular conflict of interest, it couldn’t have been any fun to read Knight’s assertion that Deitch should also be “required to liquidate” his own art collection, “or at the very least articulate the precise contents of his art holdings.”)
In his remarks, however, Deitch said that one of the reasons he had decided to take the job was the warm welcome he had received from the board. And while there is a lot of understandable grumbling in the art world about his primary experience as not just a dealer but a global wheeler-dealer, and the further blurring of lines between art institutions and art commerce, most of the response to his appointment has been of the positive, bold-move sort. If nothing else, it is brilliant P.R. — as of Wednesday morning, a Google search retrieved nearly 200 news articles, and there were hundreds of tweets.
Not surprisingly, the MOCA news was a hot topic at the midwinter meeting of the Association of Art Museum Directors in Sarasota, Florida, according to Hammer Museum director Ann Philbin, who wrote via e-mail, “I applaud [the MOCA board] for thinking outside the box. Jeffrey is a very accomplished and intelligent person with a broad skill set — I think he can pull this off and I will be rooting for him all the way.”
Philbin’s former chief curator/deputy director at the Hammer, Gary Garrels, who is now senior curator of painting and sculpture at SFMOMA, said by phone, “Jeffrey’s incredibly energetic and visionary. He’s very bright, imaginative, passionate, and he’s committed to contemporary art. He’ll inject vibrant new life into the institution, and he’ll contribute strongly to Los Angeles as a lively, contemporary creative center.”
But Garrels also admitted that there’s one big question mark, and that is Deitch’s lack of museum experience. “He’s very good working one-on-one with powerful collectors, but the chemistry changes when you’re working with a group. Museums are complicated places. He needs a strong team helping him to learn the ropes — he has a lot to learn very quickly.”
Other art professionals were far less generous. One former MOCA curator, who requested anonymity, said, “I am not worried about his commercial background, and can’t really judge what sort of management skills he has, but it is his aesthetic judgment that to me is the biggest disconnect. There is no artist on his roster that MOCA would show (the only possible exception is his newest, Tauba Auerbach). His eye seemed fairly in tune in the ’80s with Koons and Basquiat, etc., but since then he has not been a reliable arbiter of what is important in recent art. Way more flash than substance.”
Said another curator/administrator who wished not to be named, “[Deitch] has no art-history background, his work as a commercial curator has been slick but vacuous, his gallery program has (with a few exceptions) been dismal. He does not have a good reputation among many artists. He has little fund-raising experience. He has mainly worked as a dealer in the secondary market — which is hard to imagine as the right background for this job. He is a smart operator, a good dresser, and knows how to deal with art collectors. Is that enough to get by as director of MOCA?”
MOCA board co-chair David G. Johnson begs to differ, of course. Why were board members won over, despite the potential conflicts? First and foremost, Johnson told me after the press conference, it was Deitch’s answers to their questions, broad questions addressing, for instance, what museums will be in the 21st century and how MOCA will set the standard. “Jeffrey blew us away with how interesting his answers were.”