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Critic's Notebook: MOCA's complicated choice of a new director

January 11, 2010 |  6:04 pm
Deitch

Why does the Museum of Contemporary Art’s board of trustees dislike art museums?

That’s the uncomfortable question hanging in the air as the nation’s premier contemporary art museum names Jeffrey Deitch, 57, its fourth director in 30 years. In selecting new leadership, trustees shunned candidates from an international museum roster that has grown vast in recent decades.

 Instead they reached deep into the New York art market to find a director for the critically admired, financially strapped institution. Except for a brief, youthful stint in the 1970s, Deitch has no professional experience in the American museum world, either as a curator or director.

Deitch has been an art dealer and advisor to private collectors, corporations and art investors for three decades. His selection is inevitably framed as daring and audacious, but the appointment of a businessman to run a nonprofit in fact feels reactionary — a profoundly conservative response to the fiscal mismanagement of the museum’s prior administration, which nearly toppled MOCA in 2008.

Nor is going outside the museum profession adventuresome. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art tried it in 1995, to scant effect, with the appointment of UCLA executive vice chancellor Andrea L. Rich to its top post. The knock then was that Rich had no art credentials, a void Deitch’s appointment skirts.

Deitch is smart, thoughtful about art and extremely successful. His well-informed taste is oriented toward a Pop aesthetic — his gallery’s logo adapts a Warhol Brillo box — for which I have considerable sympathy. And although it has been nearly 20 years since he organized the much-admired exhibition “Post Human,” it was indeed a group show with resonance.

But there have been fiascoes too.

In 2006 his gallery was the centerpiece of a television reality show called “Artstar,” a little-watched Dish Network show co-produced with the MTV programmer who brought us “Beavis and Butt-Head.” Eight relative unknowns vied for a Deitch Projects exhibition — “Project Runway” for hungry SoHo and Chelsea wannabes. Copy-cat programming is how commercial TV operates, but it is not inventive.

Like the separation of church and state, the educational motives of an art museum differ from the entrepreneurial ones at a for-profit business. Legal restrictions also apply, since official actions at a nonprofit cannot benefit one personally, the way they are meant to do in a business. Deitch’s unusual appointment drives a bulldozer through that wall, and he will need to tiptoe through the rubble.

Notably, beyond his own gallery almost all of Deitch’s curatorial résumé (including “Post Human”) is for projects in Europe and Japan, where an independent nonprofit sector is weak or virtually nonexistent. The appointment represents an unexpected institutional blow-back from globalization — MOCA as cultural maquiladora.

The late Walter Hopps did co-own L.A.’s Ferus Gallery from 1957 to 1962, prior to his museum career, but no one would ever mistake the mercurial Hopps for a sharp businessman. Deitch becomes the only gallery owner to assume the director’s post at a major American art museum. MOCA has thus created a vexing problem: Virtually every planning move its new director makes will raise questions about its relationship to Deitch’s veiled commercial entanglements, which are long-standing and international in scope.

For instance, one question already swirls: Is MOCA partly making a play for the blue-chip collection of Dakis Joannou, 69, the Greek construction magnate, hotelier and Coca-Cola franchiser?

Joannou, a trustee of New York’s New Museum, where he is currently embroiled in a controversy over that institution’s decision to show a small portion of his 1,500-work collection in March, has said he has no intention to build a private museum. Deitch sparked Joannou’s original interest in contemporary art a quarter-century ago and has been his close advisor ever since.

Deitch is a Harvard Business School MBA with an undergraduate degree in art history from Wesleyan University. He launched his New York career in 1979 as a co-founder of Citibank’s art investment service, just as MOCA went on the drawing board. After nine years he struck out on his own as a private dealer. In addition to Joannou, he sold paintings and sculptures to corporations, assorted entrepreneurial Japanese businessmen and such private clients as MOCA board member Eli Broad and Geffen Contemporary namesake David Geffen.

Which raises more speculation: Perhaps the appointment is partly an effort to reel Geffen back into the MOCA fold, after several decades’ absence. But then, since MOCA is currently understaffed, having lost its most senior curator and deputy director in recent months, will talented museum professionals want to risk careers by going to work for a museum that mixes business with pleasure?

Presumably MOCA’s new director will be required to divest himself of all commercial or competing nonprofit arrangements, including two galleries in Lower Manhattan and one in Long Island City, across the East River from the United Nations. (Deitch Projects’ roster of 33 artists includes one from Los Angeles — Jim Isermann.) Since Deitch is reportedly a significant contemporary art collector in his own right, he should also be required to liquidate, or at the very least articulate the precise contents of his art holdings.

There is nothing wrong with a lively and robust art market, but Deitch’s commercial commitments are problematic for his new job. The problem is that the market represents a very narrow slice of a vast art-pie. Art commerce gets out-sized press because the public, although generally unfamiliar with and incurious about art, is familiar with and curious about money. In modern capitalism, art and popular culture intersect in the market.

Museums, on the other hand, are places where popular appeal should be irrelevant. Unpopular but potentially revolutionary art ideas need places to be seen, heard and debated. Depth, not breadth, is what matters. That’s what makes the American system of art museums conceptually unique, even if it doesn’t always work out that way in practice.

MOCA earned its place as the nation’s premier contemporary museum because it has a permanent collection and an exhibition history of a kind no other American museum has managed to muster. That’s been good for Los Angeles. Whether a businessman in the director’s office — especially a businessman from New York, center of the art trade — will be able to sustain that distinctive profile will, at the very least, be an interesting spectacle to watch.

-- Christopher Knight

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Above: Deitch at MOCA on Monday. Photo credit: Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times

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