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MOCA co-chairs say Deitch's contract has safeguards against conflicts of interest

January 12, 2010 |  5:30 pm

Deitch1 The co-chairs of the board of L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art say they were aware from the start that hiring Jeffrey Deitch as MOCA director would raise questions about possible conflicts of interest.

After all, Deitch has made a 30-year career of buying and selling art, turning the inspirations and labors of artists and the desires and calculations of collectors into a lucrative business.

As MOCA’s director, he’ll  have the ultimate say over which artists get exhibited  — potentially boosting their prestige and asking price. And when MOCA borrows privately owned pieces for its shows, there’s the possibility that being in the public eye in the company of other notable art will make those works more marketable and valuable.

While Deitch has agreed to end his commercial art activities by June 1, when he starts his new job, there’s nothing to stop people from speculating about his decisions.

After helping to introduce Deitch at a news conference at the museum Tuesday, co-chairs Maria Bell and David Johnson said that Deitch is a man of integrity. He would also be violating his employment contract, they said, if he were to use his position to improperly benefit himself or his friends and former business associates.

“The overriding principle is that he has to follow ... the AAM and the AAMD ethics provisions,” as well as MOCA’s own employee ethics policy, Johnson said. He was referring to the American Assn. of Museums and the Assn. of Art Museum Directors, the leading professional groups that establish standards for museum governance.

MariaBell The only enforcement power the AAM or AAMD carry is the threat of expulsion for members who violate their guidelines, or a prohibition on other member museums loaning them works of art. But breaking an employment contract presumably could lead to a staff member being disciplined or dismissed.

The AAM rules say that “no individual may use his or her position in a museum for personal gain or to benefit another at the expense of the museum, its mission, its reputation, and the society it serves,” and that “collections-related activities [must] promote the public good rather than individual financial gain.”

The AAMD specifies that while it is “entirely appropriate” for museum directors and other staffers to collect art, they are obligated to clear any private acquisitions with the museum’s board and others “involved with the museum’s collecting program.”

As Deitch adds to or sells from his collection, Johnson said, "anything he does ... he has to notify the board" and give the museum the right of first refusal on any work he wants to acquire or sell.

The AAMD cautions that museum leaders have to be cognizant of smoke as well as fire: “Good intentions, being unprovable, are an inadequate defense against...charges of impropriety.... Every effort should be made to anticipate and address situations in which there is the appearance of conflict of interest, even if no actual conflict exists.”

To avoid any suspicions about motives, will MOCA make public disclosures when it’s exhibiting works by artists whose other creations are in Deitch’s private collection?

“I’m certain the museum would be willing to be public about that,” Johnson said.

On Monday, The Times asked Deitch whether he’d be willing to avoid any appearance of conflict by promising that his collection will one day be donated to MOCA, making the potential influence of MOCA shows on his holdings’ value irrelevant.

While donating the collection to the museum is something he “possibly” will do, Deitch said, “that’s something in the future. I need to have options open.” Eventually, he said, he aims to do “something very interesting with it.”

Bruce Altshuler, who heads the museum studies program at New York University, said Tuesday that those inclined to mistrust the motives of museums and their leaders will probably take Deitch’s hiring as “here goes another step toward corruption.”

“I’m not saying the MOCA board made a mistake because of this potential perception,” he said. “But it’s an issue, the erosion of overall faith in these institutions.”

When it comes to actual rather than perceived corruption, Altshuler said, MOCA may in fact have inoculated itself against embarrassment: In hiring an art dealer as its leader, concerns about conflicts of interest will be at the forefront and “there will be a special sensitivity” that could help prevent missteps.

In any case, the professor said, in the tightly intertwined art world, potential conflicts are everywhere, and the system rests on “the integrity and self-awareness of the people involved.”

“It’s not like other museum directors don’t have close relationships with art dealers, collectors, patrons,” Altshuler said. “There is plenty of interaction and potential conflicts of interest among people who have nothing to do with the art market and have always worked for nonprofits. They’re hanging out, going to the same parties, and artists are offering them gifts.”

-- Mike Boehm

Related:

L.A.'s MOCA picks art dealer Jeffrey Deitch as director

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

Photo: Jeffrey Deitch. Maria Bell. Credits: Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times (Deitch); Ann Johannson/for the Times.

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