Jeffrey Deitch Departs, but Not Everyone is Pleased

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Jeffrey Deitch announced his resignation last week. It was long anticipated and many of his critics are relieved. But despite his managerial and political mistakes, not everybody is pleased to see him go.

Media coverage of the Deitch tenure has largely reflected the emotions and opinions of the Los Angeles art community, which has been highly critical. But there are those outside of that community, who nonetheless are interested in art and museums, who have a different view of his efforts to shake up MOCA.

Mallery Roberts Morgan, design and culture journalist for The Hollywood Reporter and AD France who moved here recently from Paris (whose hashtag following the news was #sadjeffreyisleaving), told DnA, “I’m mad at Los Angeles for losing Jeffrey. It’s a missed opportunity for LA to lead on an international stage. What he was trying to do was so forward-thinking and cutting edge, experimental in many ways, all issues that museums the worldover today are struggling with in order to attract a younger generation. If we’d gotten behind him and helped him make his vision successful, we would have been leaders, not followers.”


Jesse Dylan, who made a film lauding Deitch (see video, below) told DnA, “It is not unusual for someone at the forefront of change to be misunderstood. Though Jeffrey Deitch is no longer Director at MOCA, let’s take a moment to appreciate the fact that he brought an original voice to the art scene in Los Angeles. Whether or not you’re a fan of his style, we can all agree that he was responsible for a set of provocative, interesting and unexpected exhibitions that enriched our experience of art.”

Dylan says he was inspired to make the film, entitled “Dylan on Deitch: Reinventing the Experience of Art,” after attending the crowd-pleasing MOCA show “Art in the Streets.” (His company, Wondros, says it did not receive MOCA funding.)

By operating on the maxim that Art Is What You Can Get Away With, Deitch delighted and offended in equal measure (image from James Franco’s controversial “Rebel,” below), but he rarely bored (see the LA Times’ on MOCA’s Ups and Downs). One 30-something acquaintance said she’d been to the museum more times in the last three years than in all her preceeding years.

FrancoRebelsignBy mixing it up with fashion, film, music and performance, and by embracing the spontaneous (Urs Fischer and his 1500 friends; Art in the Streets; Transmission LA: AV Club, above left) Deitch’s shows took the earnestness out of contemporary art, which many people outside of the cognoscenti find daunting and obscure (below, Jeremy Levine talks about the importance of reaching out to young people who grew up never visiting museums.)

Evidently Deitch did not have the skill set or experience of a museum director, (and certainly the New Sculpturalism architecture show suffered as a result of poor oversight), leading his supporters to ask why he was brought into that role when his strengths lay in curation. But he awakened MOCA with his passion and curiosity — traits that enliven culture, that LA now loses and New Yorkers get to enjoy again.

See Dylan on Deitch: Reinventing the Experience of Art, Jesse Dylan of Wondros, below:

Listen to Frances Anderton in conversation with Steve Chiotakis in this All Things Considered segment featuring Mayer Rus, Mallery Roberts Morgan and Jeremy Levine.

Mayer Rus is an editor and writer about style and culture currently at Architectural Digest magazine. Listen to this interview with DnA for more on his thoughts about what MOCA loses by Deitch’s departure, and why it is that Los Angeles can sometimes resemble a high school cafeteria in BH 90210.

Hunter Drohojowska-Philp is an art critic at KCRW and other outlets, and writer of several books including Rebels in Paradise. She responds to Mayer Rus and Jeremy Levine in this interview with DnA, saying that LACMA and the Hammer are as effective in outreach as MOCA under Deitch ever was, and better run.

Q and A with Jeremy Levine

Jeremy Levine sits on the boards of two arts foundations, Side Street Projects (their bus is shown, below) and The Harpo Foundation. Side Street supports emerging artists and arts education for kids (through sponsoring mobile woodworking classes). Harpo supports emerging artists.

Following are his thoughts on what Deitch brought to MOCA in terms of outreach to young people, as well as what it was about the art impresario that so enraged the art community.

JL: Amongst young kids there is such a sense of disconnection from the large cultural institutions of downtown that seem so foreign and distant.

The kids that we deal with from Pasadena, for example, through Side Street Projects, their parents haven’t had a history of going to art museums. A lot of them are the sons and daughters of immigrants. They just don’t have a strong relationship with these large cultural institutions. And one thing that Deitch did effectively was to break down the image of this large, white, marble object on the hillside that seems so unapproachable.

Sidestreet bus

On the other hand, the negative part that I agree with is the issue of him wanting too much control. But just dialing back for a second, look at the history of this thing in 2008 — the museum’s in dire straits, and they bring in this guy Deitch, and they know he’s a gallerist. They know he’s not a curator and they know he’s not an academic. And so, what the hell did they expect out of him? Did you expect him to be a hardcore academic really interested in all the most cutting edge, critical issues of the times or did you expect him to be focused on fundraising and driving people back downtown to the museum? And I think it’s the latter, so part of the problem has been an expectation issue.

I think the other issue in general is that when you bring in someone like Deitch who has done a fantastic job of bringing in money, you trade something for that, you trade artistic freedom. This idea that it comes without a cost is crazy. Clearly the people of L.A. are not going enough to this museum, there are just not enough visitors. That’s a problem and you can’t will it away, you can’t wish it away. It takes someone to take over the institution like Deitch, and the man got public criticism for it. The thing I am not critical of is how he shaped up the institution and energized it.

The last thing I’d say is that, not every museum has to do the same kind of programming. Not every museum has to participate in the cutting edge curatorial projects that excite the arts community and the artists in the museum. We have to have that but I you have LACMA, you have the Hammer. There are a lot of institutions and I think MOCA has a chance to be something larger than just a museum, a kind of cultural generator, an energizer, something that gets people talking, young people particularly, who really feel very disengaged. I’ve talked to them and I’m shocked at how few of them have been to a museum. But, with “street art,” suddenly they find themselves there and maybe that’s just the introduction, and maybe later they’ll come back and see a Pollock show, but to get them in the door seems important.

DnA: Your sense is that many in the art community are pleased at Deitch’s departure, even though he is known for supporting younger artists and unknown artists. Why do you think you’re getting this cohesive sense of animosity towards Deitch from the art community?

JL: Two things. One is that the artists don’t have a lot of power in general. They have a tiny bit of power they have and that’s the power to be cultural critics. They particularly don’t have a lot of money and they don’t have a lot of political power so it’s important for them to, as much as they can, organize themselves into a way of expressing themselves with some degree of unity so that voices can be heard, which I can appreciate.

Then I think what really struck them is that ceding power to a business man, or someone they perceived to be a business man, someone with an MBA rather than an art criticism or art history background, in the case of Deitch, feels like they’re giving up a lot of power. And they are. And that is the trade-off you make when you have to get in bed with business that’s saving your institution.

You know, you look back, the Geffen Contemporary had to close for six months. It was closed for six months for one reason: they didn’t have the money to run it. Now they have the money to run it and the fact that we have the institution open, versus being closed, is due to Deitch. I think we have to admit that and it’s not popular, and no one likes to believe that they can’t run the institution on their own.

I’m sure these artists feel “Wow, what are we doing wrong? We really know the art world…” Unfortunately, the art world, or art patrons who are not art buyers, doesn’t support the museum. The museum is supported by large donors and that takes someone who had familiarity with courting these donors. That’s the sad part about it. I think the biggest kind of wake-up call was learning the degree to which rich art institutions and business are enmeshed.

It’s something that art institutions or artists don’t want to acknowledge, the fact that how much of what they do is dependent upon large donors, not the individual average Angeleno, but a very small percentage of extremely wealthy donors. They’re the people that keep the museum doors open and the former director was not able to court them successfully. And the size of the endowment dropped from, I believe it was from $40 million to $6 million. That’s staggering. That was in a span of about ten years.

I think that says everything and, boy, you really don’t have a lot of room to complain. Well, certainly you can complain, but you have to be aware that when you take someone’s money it comes at a cost, it comes with strings. And they took the money. That’s it.

Craig Barritt