LA MoCa’s New Currency: the Deitch Mark

The appointment of 57-year-old Jeffrey Deitch, the well-known New York dealer in contemporary art, as director of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) in Los Angeles marks the first time that the owner of commercial gallery has become the director of a major nonprofit art museum. No matter how thickly MoCA slathers the news with public-relations frosting, this is a conflict of interest. Not a “possible” conflict of interest, but an obvious conflict of interest. Can a man who’s made his living dealing contemporary art put all that behind him and now approach art as something to be valued for its own sake, and for a non-buying general public’s sake, and not something that’s for sale? Well, you tell me.

In terms of money, the appointment makes a sort of sense — at least that’s how MoCA’s Board sees it. The museum has been in serious financial straits for quite a while. It ran up deficits, depleted its endowment, and only board member Eli Broad’s $30-million bailout in 2008 prevented the institution’s either closing outright or being folded into the encyclopedic Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Deitch arrives with a whole lot of knowledge about contemporary art and the contemporary art world, the kind of connections with collectors that make artists salivate, the kind of connections with big-time artists that make collectors giddy, and a Harvard MBA. (An MBA is now practically a requirement for museum directors, and “Harvard” gives it special cachet. Alas, Deitch’s MBA is his only graduate degree, i.e., nothing in art history.) Since his success as a dealer demonstrates an ability to cajole people with lots of money into handing over some of it in exchange for art, MoCA figures it won’t be that hard for him to switch gears and coax them into handing over some more of that money to support a contemporary art museum—especially, one speculates, if there should just happen to be an artist or two they collect on view in that same museum.

For the most probing examination of Deitch’s appointment, read Christopher Knight’s take in the L.A. Times. (Forget The New York Times — their writers seem to be satisfied with getting the spelling of “Deitch” right.) Also, the art blogger Joerg Colberg questions whether Deitch’s appointment marks the spread into the art world of the “revolving door” phenomenon so common in government: regulators becoming lobbyists, then returning as regulators, only to become lobbyists again, all to the benefit of the industries they never completely leave. What, pray tell, is to prevent Deitch from finishing out his five-year contract at MoCA and then re-opening a new and improved Deitch Projects gallery, in which many of the represented artists just happen to have been prominently displayed at MoCA? (There’s nothing like museum exposure to kick up prices!)

In a telephone interview with Tyler Green, published on Green’s blog, Modern Art Notes, Deitch says: “A priority of mine is to make a new model of a museum gift shop which we might be able to take beyond Los Angeles, to try to find an interesting new revenue source like that. Maybe there are partnerships that one could do with, say, a website or a publication and that could be advertiser supported in part. A museum must look beyond the traditional means of support of relying on an august foundation or a wealthy family that’s been around for a few generations to support the museum. You have to go way beyond that to find new sources of support.”

In this unabashed embrace of commercialism, Deitch demonstrates — for better or worse — that he understands that a major museum needs more money than rich donors can supply. And more money, especially, than the public is willing to pay. While Europeans see their museums as integral to their various cultures and identities, and allow the government to tax them for major support, we Americans see things differently. Culture is fine and dandy so long as it doesn’t cost anything more than the price of an occasional ticket. Oh, we’ll throw in a few tax dollars here and there to wax the floors, but mostly we think that museums should manage on their own — like galleries. It should come as no surprise, then, that the financially hungry and desperate MoCA has decided to hire as its new director a man who’s profitably run a high-end art gallery for most of his professional life. MoCA’s board is probably slapping each other on the back as I write, for thinking outside the box.

Yet, at bottom, this hire smells bad — and not just because there’s a conflict of interest, or because it demonstrates that museums are relying more and more strictly on business models in order to keep their doors open. No, what’s most bothersome about the appointment is something very simple: Deitch’s taste. I live but a few blocks from his Soho gallery, and have stopped to see its exhibitions on countless occasions simply because I was walking by, and, well, why not? Most of the time, over the years, Deitch has offered nothing but the flash-and-filigree abject fare that defines a specific precinct of contemporary art — the in-your-face, noisy, neo-neo-neo-(sigh)-Dada kind that celebrates pseudo-transgressive novelty and cleverness over profundity or gravitas.

In 2006, Deitch lent his gallery and imprimatur to a low-end TV reality show on the Dish Network called — and this will give you an idea of its tackiness — “Artstar.” Previously unknown artists, their mostly pathetic work in tow, formed a long line in front of Deitch’s gallery. They waited for hours to “audition” for a chance to undergo a “Survivor”-like competition to win an exhibition at the gallery. Deitch was one of the jurors; one of the finalists had exhibited with Deitch before, and another was the father of a Deitch artist. Is this the kind of director L.A. needs for its allegedly world’s best contemporary art museum? As I said, you tell me.

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