Sometimes when museum directors get hired, fired, or choose to resign, it creates a mild controversy -- a storm in a teacup. But not this time. The announcement by trustees of LA's Museum of Contemporary Art that they selected Jeffrey Deitch, a prominent New York art dealer, as MOCA's new director, created nothing short of a perfect storm, generating headlines nationwide. Is this appointment a stroke of genius which will infuse the rarified museum world with much-needed new energy and particular art-market savvy? Or, is it an inexcusable breach of the traditional wall that has long-separated the academic, nonprofit museum world from the dollar-obsessed art market?
Here in Los Angeles, over the last ten years, we've witnessed a number of seemingly well-qualified museum directors and CEO's who began their tenure with a bang, only to end in embarrassment, if not disgrace. So, one might ask, why not try a totally new approach, and find a candidate who has deep knowledge and love for art, but at the same time has a killer instinct for the art market and the business savvy to play the game with the rich and famous?
As far as I'm concerned, Jeffrey Deitch fits the bill to perfection. Not only does he have a Harvard MBA, but he's also served briefly as a museum curator, followed by longer stints as an art critic, magazine editor, and corporate art consultant. As a very successful private dealer, Jeffrey Deitch became a major player on the international art scene, which was probably especially appealing to museum trustees as they chose him to become the new director of MOCA. As the venerable Roberta Smith writes in today's New York Times, "He has run his SoHo gallery as an ad hoc Kunsthalle in which art, music, fashion, and the street collide, and just about anything can happen."
His aesthetic interests cover a wide range, from the graffiti art of Jean-Michel Basquiat whom he championed in the 80's, to the expensive shiny baubles by Jeff Koons, a favorite of newly minted billionaire collectors. In the case of the latter, Deitch invested millions of his own dollars into financing the production of Koons' sculptures, which almost ruined him financially. Another disappointment was his short-lived reality TV show Artstar – a decidedly uninventive spin-off of many similar programs, this one featuring eager contestants competing for a chance to show their art at his gallery.
One wants to believe that Jeffrey Deitch, who is 57, decided to dramatically change the course of his life not because of the recent downturn in the art market which affected all dealers, but because he jumped at the opportunity to face a unique challenge – his biggest yet – which appealed to his idealistic side. Now he is obliged to close his commercial gallery and divest himself of any financial interests in the art market, with which he has been so intimately involved. And whatever salary he'll receive as MOCA's director, it will pale in comparison to the money he made as a private dealer. But probably his biggest challenge will be moving from the private sector, where he answered to no one, to the nonprofit world of a public institution, where his every action, especially at the very beginning, will be closely scrutinized, considering - to put it mildly - the unorthodox nature of this appointment.
And who knows, this surprising development at MOCA might be a harbinger of things to come for museums across the country. After all, it's not for nothing they say, "As goes California, so goes the nation."
Banner image: MoCA's inaugural exhibition, The First Show: Paintings and Sculpture from Eight Collections 1940-1980. Photo: Tom Bonner