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MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch defends 'seriousness' of shows

MOCA's Jeffrey Deitch rejects the idea that he has courted celebrity sizzle and populist appeal at the expense of serious scholarship.

August 04, 2012|By Reed Johnson, Los Angeles Times
  • “What we’re doing here now, it’s on the most serious level,” says MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch, shown in 2010.
“What we’re doing here now, it’s on the most serious… (Christina House, For The…)

Jeffrey Deitch has seen the future of American museum audiences. And, he says, they will look a lot different from the old guard at Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art.

"They're not the people who make a living as artists, art critics or professional art collectors, which is the traditional MOCA audience," says Deitch, the museum's colorful and controversial director.

"These are people who hear about a great new film they want to go to. They hear that there's a terrific new fashion store that's very cool — they want to go there. They don't differentiate between these cultural forms."

This is the kind of talk that has made Deitch, 59, persona non grata in certain circles and divided L.A.'s art community this summer. All four artists on MOCA's Board of Trustees resigned last month after Deitch prevailed in a two-year struggle of wills with recently ousted chief curator Paul Schimmel. More than 1,500 people signed an online petition calling on the museum to hire a new chief curator — a role Deitch plans to fill himself with help from guest curators.

In recent weeks, four lifetime trustees publicly voiced their displeasure with Deitch's "celebrity-driven program," and former UCLA chancellor and onetime MOCA director Charles Young urged Eli Broad, the billionaire philanthropist who is MOCA's chief sponsor, to get rid of Deitch.

"His tenure is likely to take MOCA into the abyss," Young wrote in a letter to Broad.

Not so fast, say Deitch's supporters, who have only recently begun to speak out.

"I feel like he's shaking the foundation of the castle, and the people who've been living quite comfortably in that castle for the last 20 years are nervous about it," says Aaron Rose, who co-curated "Art in the Streets," MOCA's exhibition on the history of graffiti and street art, for Deitch.

"Could it possibly be time to pass the torch to the next?" Rose wrote in "Generation Gap: In Defense of Deitch," an essay for the Breaks website. "Isn't this the function of a contemporary art museum?"

Rose, who has been instrumental in supporting the early careers of many well-known artists, explains that he "felt it was important for someone to tell the other side" to counter the "big hate fest" taking place.

Deitch has responded to the uproar mostly with silence. But on a recent Friday afternoon, he agreed to give his side of the story to The Times.

Guiding a visitor through "The Painting Factory: Abstraction After Andy Warhol," an exhibition he personally organized, Deitch can barely contain his enthusiasm. It's one of four current shows that he likes to describe as part of the museum's "world-class program."

"What we're doing here now, it's on the most serious level," says Deitch, nattily attired in a pale yellow suit and his signature round-frame glasses. "It's as good as any museum in the country."

But minutes later, seated in a conference room at MOCA's Grand Avenue headquarters, Deitch pours out his exasperation over the headline-grabbing events of recent weeks that have thrust him into what Young, in his letter to Broad, called the "four-alarm fire now enveloping MOCA."

"I'm embattled," Deitch says in a tone more sorrowful than angry.

"Your average cultured reader, reading the L.A. Times, thinks that I've destroyed the museum, that I've dismantled all intelligence from the program, that we're doing nothing serious, that we're showing, like, celebrity portraits or something, that nobody on the staff gets along with me," he says. "And that is not what's happening here."

Deitch says that since leaving Deitch Projects, his for-profit Manhattan gallery, and taking the helm at the nonprofit museum two summers ago, he has boosted attendance to record levels. He says tens of thousands of new visitors now come to MOCA's exhibitions.

And he insists that MOCA is getting its shaky financial house in order by keeping spending tightly in line with revenues and rebuilding its endowment after years of fiscal mismanagement that preceded his arrival.

Deitch declines to talk on the record about Schimmel, who has not spoken publicly since leaving MOCA. More than once, he checks himself as he starts to talk about the falling out.

What seems to bother Deitch most are complaints that he has courted celebrity sizzle and populist appeal at the expense of serious scholarship. His critics have cited not only "Art in the Streets" but also a show devoted to art from the late actor Dennis Hopper, and a multimedia meta-project in which actor James Franco paid deconstructionist tribute to "Rebel Without a Cause."

"It's a wrong [idea] that in order to be important you've got to be deadly serious and academic," Deitch says. " 'Art in the Streets' was serious art history."

Deitch stresses that his tenure has also included exhibitions devoted to esoteric painter-sculptor Cy Twombly, iconoclastic filmmaker-author Kenneth Anger and Chinese contemporary artist Cai Guo-Qiang.

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