Deitch’s New Project 

MOCA’s big gamble

Wednesday, Jan 13 2010

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Joel Wachs, president of the Andy Warhol Foundation and former L.A. City Council member, was the only non–board member on the MOCA search committee. Wachs said by phone that he didn’t come to the table with Deitch in mind, but was swayed by a five-hour chat with him in Wachs’ apartment the night before Christmas.

“I looked at the search from the context of what MOCA needs now,” Wachs said. “One, it needs someone who finally has the ability and the connections to build a board that is not dependent on one man. Second, it needs someone with business acumen. Third, someone who is really committed to programming, and fourth, how MOCA relates to L.A.’s other arts institutions and creative communities, as well as its ethnic and cultural communities. He is one of the few people in the art world who really sees the potential here, and I think Jeffrey has the skills and strengths for what MOCA needs right now.”

When Deitch finally sat down in the MOCA conference room Tuesday afternoon, wearing a smart blue suit, he was engaged but weary. Asked why he would want to take this job given what he’ll have to leave behind, Deitch said his motivation is simple: “I want to be at MOCA for the same reason I got into art in the first place. I’m someone who believes in art, in artists, and in the ability of art to build a community. It’s something I’ve wanted since I was a teenager.”

click to enlarge It’s pronounced dye-tch, not deetch.
  • It’s pronounced dye-tch, not deetch.

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Deitch noted that while still in college (art history, Wesleyan; MBA, Harvard), he bought all of Ed Ruscha’s books, which he ordered directly from Ruscha, who sent handwritten receipts and notes. “Collecting is a way to engage with the artist,” Deitch said. “It never had to be about money.” He noted that some people — namely, himself — would rather buy a piece of art than take a holiday. “There’s nothing like actually living with a work of art, because a significant work of art reflects the personality of the artist. A work of art has a kind of life.”

After graduating from college, he weighed his options. He tried the museum world first, taking a curatorial position at the De Cordova Museum in suburban Boston, “but realized I was very far from the center.” Which center? “New York and the emerging art scene in the early ’80s. I needed to be involved in that.”

When I suggested that he was now leaving all of that, he shot back, “Los Angeles is as central as any part of the earth! That’s why I want to be here. I’m bringing 40 years of accumulated relationships with great artists, curators and collectors. It’s my whole world. What I’m giving up is a good income stream that I’ve developed as a dealer.”

To that end, he added, “All activities as an art dealer will cease on June 1. As for my personal collection, I hope I won’t have to sell it. Because it’s my lifetime project.”

Would “Black Acid Co-Op,” Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe’s show last summer that turned Deitch Projects into a massive, complex and claustrophobic meth lab, be a good fit for MOCA? Deitch said this is the sort of question he’ll have to discuss with the board in the future. That particular show, he said, cost him $100,000 and he didn’t make a penny of it back. And in a thinly veiled answer to his critics, he added, “Deitch Projects was as much about art patronage as about art dealing.”

As for the kinds of shows he anticipates for MOCA’s future, he said he wanted “to continue the tradition of great historical thematic shows, to maintain a special emphasis on Los Angeles contemporary art history, as well as to open up programming to more of what’s going on in Asia and Latin America. He aspires to exhibitions that are “very important historically and very exciting at the same time. You can’t do it all the time but it is possible to do — rigorous, intellectually stimulating and fun at the same time.”

For that, he has some help. “One of the great things about coming here is the opportunity to work with [chief MOCA curator] Paul Schimmel, one of the greatest curators in the world today.”

One important staff member Deitch won’t get any help from is current MOCA deputy director Ari Wiseman, whose hiring last Friday as deputy director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation got kind of lost in the MOCA-Deitch shuffle. Wiseman will work two more weeks before heading to New York. “MOCA’s a fantastic institution,” he told me. “I have benefited immensely from working here for the past eight years, and I hope that history here can be beneficial at the Guggenheim.”

  • MOCA’s big gamble

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