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MOCA may go in a new direction

N.Y. art dealer Jeffrey Deitch is seen as a top contender for the post of L.A.'s MOCA director. No other art museum in the United States is headed by a former commercial gallery owner.

January 09, 2010|By Mike Boehm

L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art says it will name its new director Monday, and one of the names in play is that of Jeffrey Deitch, a high-flying New York City art dealer who, if chosen, would represent a break with art museum convention.

Neither the museum, nor arts patron Eli Broad -- whose $30-million pledge was the cornerstone of the museum's rescue from financial peril in late 2008 -- would comment on the finalists for the job.

"We've interviewed about 13 people and no decision has been made yet, by either the search committee or the board, but we hope that will happen soon," Broad said. Hours later, the museum sent out a notice that it would announce its choice at 10:30 a.m. Monday.

Two names from more traditional museum-world backgrounds also are being mentioned. Lisa Phillips is the longtime director of the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York City, and Lars Nittve, the former director of London's Tate Modern, is with the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, where he recently staged an exhibition focusing on Los Angeles artists.

But the possibility of Deitch, with the novelty of a gallery owner and art dealer assuming a major museum directorship, was a topic of discussion in the art community.

American museum directors typically come from within the curatorial, academic or other nonprofit ranks. No major art museum in the United States is directed by a former gallery owner.

Among those watching the MOCA process were Jeff Poe of the L.A. gallery Blum & Poe, and Hugh Davies, director of San Diego's Museum of Contemporary Art.

"My immediate response was that there's no way, it doesn't make any sense" that a leading dealer like Deitch would give up his business to lead a nonprofit museum, Poe said. "But the more I think about it, it would be really interesting. He would be able to deal with the politics involved in a job like that. I'd welcome him with open arms."

Davies predicted that if Deitch, who is in his late 50s, was the choice, he would face skepticism or worse about his move from the commercial end of the art world, championing the work of Jeff Koons, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, to museum work.

Heading a nonprofit museum such as MOCA involves more than promoting artists and connecting buyers with paintings.

One part is persuading private collectors to donate valuable works, sometimes entire collections; another is presenting exhibitions that can make art accessible to non-experts, and illuminating, fresh and inspiring for the cognoscenti.

And then there is the need to raise donations of at least $10 million a year, money that MOCA relies on to pay most of its bills. More would be needed to restore a budget cut to about $15.5 million from more than $20 million amid a financial crunch. The museum's previous director, Jeremy Strick, lost his job over the crisis.

"Everybody's knee-jerk response is 'Oh, he's an art dealer,' " who won't be well-versed in the nuances of museum leadership, Davies said.

"It would never have occurred to me to think of him as a candidate" until he heard Deitch mentioned last week as a contender, Davies said.

Still, he said, "I think he would be a brilliant choice. If you're looking for a tireless worker, a lively mind and extraordinary knowledge of the art world, I don't think you could do better than Jeffrey."

Deitch has helped Broad acquire some of the works in his collection, Davies said.

According to a 2007 profile in the New Yorker, Deitch studied art history at Wesleyan University, then earned a graduate degree in business from Harvard. In 1979 he helped launch an art-advisory service for clients of Citibank, working closely with artists and leading international collectors.

Then he became a private dealer, and in 1996 he founded his gallery, Deitch Projects. Besides making multimillion-dollar sales, he has become known for organizing shows of street and performance art, and for making Deitch Projects a nexus where the visual arts intersect with the underground rock scene.

Art collector Dean Valentine, a former MOCA board member who has publicly criticized the museum's leadership and remains skeptical about its future, said having Deitch at the helm would be both "a huge risk" and an opportunity.

"Out-of-the-box choices can often be inspired. They can create new kinds of energy," Valentine said. "But when they don't work, they can be disastrous."

Deitch did not respond to a request for comment. An assistant at Deitch's gallery said he was in Los Angeles to attend meetings.

mike.boehm@latimes.com

Times staff writer David Ng contributed to this report.

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