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.”
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.”
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.”
Guggenheim director Richard Armstrong doesn’t doubt that. Armstrong said by phone that Wiseman, who is just 34, will function as “a kind of connective tissue, not only between the staff and myself but between the various institutions — in Venice, Bilbao, Berlin and Abu Dhabi.” Armstrong, who was on the original artists’ committee to help organize MOCA back in the day, added, “From talking with Ari, I realized he could bring a different kind of perspective to our operation. He has a great reputation, I think he was responsible for much of MOCA’s success. It’s what you call a confluence of happiness.”
Despite all the questions, one can only hope the same for MOCA and Deitch. In the meantime, as For Your Art founder Bettina Korek said following the press conference, “It’s about the discussion, and the discussion has begun.”