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CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

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

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 @latimes.com

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