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MOCA pick: bold or just biz?

Art dealer Jeffrey Deitch will have to walk a fine line as the new museum director.

January 12, 2010|By CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | Art Critic
  • Jeffrey Deitch at MOCA on Monday for the announcement of his selection as its new director.
Jeffrey Deitch at MOCA on Monday for the announcement of his selection as… (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles…)

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 previous 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 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 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?

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