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[Updated] Jeffrey Deitch says he'll still sell art -- but not deal in it -- after taking MOCA reins

March 18, 2010 |  7:02 am

DeitchIrfanKhan "Art isn't easy," Stephen Sondheim once noted in song, and Jeffrey Deitch, director-in-waiting of L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art, is finding that disposing of it in a hurry isn't easy either.

MOCA braved considerable controversy when it announced in January that it was hiring a leading contemporary art dealer to be its next director. Part of the deal was that Deitch would liquidate his New York-based business, Deitch Projects, before beginning his MOCA job on June 1, thus shedding the potential conflicts of interest and the ethical murk that could arise if a museum director tried to serve both the scholarly, educational and public service mandates of a nonprofit museum and the profit motive of a commercial art dealer.

Now, Deitch says he expects that when he starts at MOCA he will still have "a few hundred works" on his hands that currently belong to Deitch Projects and that he expects to fold them into his personal collection. He said he planned to go on selling some of those -- under protocols previously worked out with MOCA's board that apply when he sells pieces from his personal art holdings.

Deitch said he needed the money to cover the cost of shutting down his business, including breaking leases and keeping financial promises he made to gallery employees who would be out of a job. He said he planned to sell only relatively minor works, and that it was OK, under standard museum-world ethical guidelines, for a museum director to own a collection and, with certain restrictions such as giving MOCA right of first refusal, to sell items from it.

The question of potential conflicts posed by Deitch's long career as an art dealer and his appointment as MOCA's director arose again Wednesday when New York-based writer Lee Rosenbaum (who has contributed three articles to the Los Angeles Times' opinion pages since 2006) posted a report about him  on her CultureGrrl visual art blog. She wrote that she had buttonholed Deitch following a talk he gave two weeks ago at the Guggenheim Museum, and he told her he planhed to continue selling works now held by Deitch Projects after his MOCA job began. That, Rosenbaum said, struck her as an "astonishing admission."

She said she immediately asked him, "Isn't that dealing?" and Deitch "then backpedaled: He would sell only lesser works at minor auctions. ...The more important pieces would be transferred from his gallery's inventory to his private collection."

Deitch, reached by phone in Portland, Ore., said there was nothing astonishing or conflict-ridden about it, because after June 1 he would proceed under the rules he and MOCA's board agreed to before he was hired: The museum gets first dibs on anything he sells. "Art dealing is over," he emphasized.

Asked to define what constituted dealing in art as opposed to selling it from a private collection, Deitch said, "Art dealing is when you're doing it as a business." Starting when he takes over at MOCA, he says, any selling he does will be handled by auction houses or dealers.

The selling he plans to do after June 1 might include "one substantial work that is already on the market" through Deitch Projects, he said, declining to identify the piece. Beyond that, he says he'll likely dispose of "other works that are less important to my collection, and ... some very minor pieces I've accumulated over the years," motivated in some cases less by expectations that they will earn profits down the line than by a desire to help artists who need the cash.

Deitch said he was making a complete list of what he'd own after unsold works from Deitch Projects became merged with his private holdings and would turn it over to the MOCA board's executive committee. "The motivation is simply to be transparent," he said. "It's very straightforward. There's nothing anyone should be concerned about. I have nothing to hide."

The most potentially charged scenario for MOCA would arise if the art world started questioning whether decisions by Deitch the museum director were influenced by the potential value that might accrue to the holdings of Deitch the art owner. When museums exhibit or acquire works by a given artist, there's a potential for other comparable works by that artist to gain prominence, cachet and market value.

Presumably, if MOCA trustees have an inventory of Deitch's holdings -- and are sufficiently committed, attentive and willing to challenge their top employee -- they would be in a position to intervene if they became concerned that something Deitch wanted to show at MOCA or sell from his own collection could compromise the museum.

Deitch said MOCA and many other museums owned and displayed pieces by the more than 50 artists whose works made up what he considered his core collection. "Given my years in the field" as a dealer, he said, "I've had so many involvements with artists, it's not feasible to say, 'There can't be shows with artists who Jeffrey has worked with.' "

Overall, Deitch said he considered his personal collection to be his "legacy."

"There are times when I could have used the money and I didn't sell anything major," he said. "I will, over the next year or so, sell a few pieces, and that's it."

The quick-and-easy solution to any actual or suspected dilemmas posed by Deitch's impending switch from art seller to art steward would be to pledge his collection to a museum.

"I'm 57 years old and the collection is my major asset, and I'm not in a position to do that now," he said. "If things go well and I stay healthy, that is my goal."

[Update 11:10 a.m. March 19] Deitch’s future bosses, the MOCA trustees, apparently don’t see his inability to liquidate Deitch Projects by June 1 as a problem. David Johnson, the board’s co-chair, issued this written statement in response to our inquiry: "The trustees understand that Jeffrey is a collector and that he may occasionally sell works from his private collection from time to time in compliance with his employment contract, and the museum's and the AAM and AAMD guidelines.” The acronyms are for the American Association of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors, professional groups that set voluntary standards for museum ethics and governance.

-- Mike Boehm

Related:

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

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

Photo: Jeffrey Deitch. Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times

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