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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

He points to a thick, shiny silver catalog of the "Painting Factory" exhibition that rests on the conference room table. "Open it," Deitch urges.

"How can people talk about the lack of seriousness?" he asks. "This is the heaviest book on new abstract painting that's been published in a long time."

He reaches for another volume from the shelves.

"This is one of my good efforts, OK? This is the definitive book on Keith Haring," he continues. "I never had to go to a newspaper and say, 'But please, don't you see my book is serious?' The books, they were well-reviewed, they won prizes. This is crazy for me."

Deitch, like Rose, believes that a generational shift is opening new directions for contemporary art museums. He wants MOCA to be at the intersection of "these giant cultural trends that span innovation in art, music, fashion" and often bubble up from underground subcultures.

A great example of this, he says, is MOCA's upcoming exhibition on disco. The blogosphere erupted with ridicule when word of the show leaked. But Deitch counters that it will be a scholarly investigation of disco's overlap with such era-defining phenomena as the emergence of gay culture from the margins and the rise of hip-hop as a dominant pop-culture aesthetic. Such programming, he says, is helping MOCA reach a new, more diverse audience.

Deitch, says L.A. artist Shepard Fairey in an email, "has an especially astute understanding of the inter-connected nature of high and low art culture. When I say low art, I don't mean inferior, I mean street-level things like graffiti, fashion, and music that inspire fearless youthful creativity and at their best are equal in rigor to any studio practice." Most famous for his Obama "Hope" posters, Fairey and his design firm, Studio One, have been contracted by MOCA to create a graphic identity for the museum.

Rose points out that other museums are adopting strategies similar to MOCA's to entice younger crowds. Electronica DJ Moby recently performed at an Annenberg Space for Photography show on rock 'n' roll imagery. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art drew large numbers of young, first-time visitors with its recent Tim Burton exhibition. The Hammer Museum attracted millennials with its Also I Like to Rock concert series.

"You see this all the time, with the replacement of CEOs, with an old guard stepping down and bringing in a young guard to keep something relevant," Rose says.

Deitch acknowledges that tensions arose between him and some MOCA staffers as soon as he arrived in L.A. "Certain individuals did not want me here," he says, "and have been relentless in painting me in a negative light."

Critics still wonder how Deitch will be able to shoulder more curatorial duties in addition to his fundraising responsibilities. And they have raised concerns about Broad's growing influence over the museum.

Lenore S. Greenberg, a MOCA life trustee, says the museum's problems stem from Deitch's programming decisions as well as new board members who "are not familiar with what their responsibilities are."

She adds, "The board is dysfunctional, and I don't think the director is functional either."

Deitch bristles at what he calls the bias that he came to L.A. "as a craven businessman, as a pawn of Eli Broad to help him on his takeover" of MOCA. The trustees who have spoken against him, he says, are "just really misinformed about what's going on here."

Deitch says that two "significant' new trustees will join the board within days, and he intends to recruit new artists to the board to replace Ed Ruscha, Catherine Opie, Barbara Kruger and John Baldessari. The core of his board and staff, he declares, is now fully behind him.

"I'm very eager to get beyond that and talk about our exhibitions and programs," he said. "My goal is to just really get back to our business and not prolong this."

Times staff writer Mike Boehm contributed to this report.

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