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Dealer-to-Director: Why Jeffrey Deitch is Wrong for LA MOCA UPDATED

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Jeffrey Deitch’s new project: LA MOCA’s Geffen Contemporary

The membrane between the commercial and nonprofit artworlds has become considerably more permeable in recent years. As recently as 10 years ago (in connection with the Brooklyn Museum’s “Sensation” exhibition, for example), it was considered inappropriate for museums to receive financial backing from dealers for shows of artists in their stables.

Now it’s routine, as is the support of mega-collectors for museum shows of artists in whom they have a personal financial stake. Financially pressed museums can’t help but be tempted to mount shows for which they know they can get funding from these self-interested, big-money players. One hand washes the other.

But in choosing dealer Jeffrey Deitch as its new director (effective June 1), LA MOCA has taken the museum-market nexus to a disturbing new level. There’s a good reason why this has rarely happened before (notable exception: Walter Hopps) and it’s shocking to me that major museum directors who arrived at their positions the old-fashioned way—Glenn Lowry of the Museum of Modern Art, Michael Govan of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Michael Brand of the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and Jeremy Strick, LA MOCA’s former director—have so precipitously jumped on the MOCA bandwagon.

You can read Lowry’s and Govan’s comments in the museum’s press release announcing the appointment. Here’s what Brand (who will soon be leaving his Getty post and is now attending the Association of Art Museum Directors meeting in Sarasota) wrote this to me, in response to my e-mailed query:

I’m happy to say I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Jeffrey for a long time and have always thought he had both a serious sense of curiosity for contemporary art in all its forms coupled with a great sense of spectacle. He will add yet another very positive element to the creative mix in Los Angeles.

Jeremy Strick, who landed safely at the Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas, after jumping ship from the foundering LA museum that he had led for almost a decade, wrote this to me:

Excellent appointment. Jeffrey possesses the talents and experience to accomplish great things for the institution.

I have no doubts about Jeffrey’s knowledge of contemporary art and, particularly, his “sense of spectacle,” as Brand called it. And I’m confident that his connections with megabucks collectors, as discussed in his interview with LA Times reporter Mike Boehm, are impressive:

Deitch said one of the best cards he holds is his long-standing relationships with art collectors around the world. Having sold them art, he’ll try to sell them on giving large sums of money to MOCA.

So what’s my problem?

For starters, Deitch owes his personal financial well-being to his collector/clients (including MOCA kingpin Eli Broad and New Museum trustee Dakis Joannou, among many others), as well as to the artists whose works he sells. It’s fine, as a dealer, to privilege his inner circle and their interests. It’s not fine to do so as a nonprofit museum director who must impartially cast a much wider net.

Deitch was chosen for his relationships, but it’s precisely those private commercial connections, and their ramifications for a public nonprofit institution that worry me. Will artists attached to rival dealers be welcomed as warmly at MOCA as those from Deitch’s chosen group? Will collectors who aren’t associated with Deitch-the-Dealer be loath to associate with Deitch-the-Director? Will those collectors who always expected something from Deitch for their money still expect a quid pro quo—that the works and artists in their collections will be first among equals?

The thing that makes me the most uneasy (and that would, to my mind, be the deal-killer) is the possibility that Deitch will maintain some degree of financial interest in his gallery and its art. What we have read so far along these lines is not entirely reassuring. [See UPDATE at bottom of this post.]

He talked to Boehm of the LA Times about “possibly…transferring parts of the business to some of his current employees”—a vague pronouncement about something that should have been thoroughly worked out and vetted by MOCA’s board. If and when he leaves MOCA, will those “parts of the business” taken over by current employees be “transferred” back to him? Will he retain any financial interest in the gallery and its art while he directs MOCA?

All of this must be thoroughly and publicly disclosed. And if he’s still got a present or future financial stake in the gallery, he shouldn’t be directing the museum.

Even more problematic is this from Candace Jackson‘s interview of Deitch for the Wall Street Journal:

Asked about possible conflicts of interest with artists he’s represented, Mr. Deitch, who has been in the art business since the mid-1970s said, “there are too many long term relationships to be completely restrictive. We will do what is appropriate.”

Just what is “appropriate”? The public needs to know.

It seems to me that the minimum requirement for jumping over the dealer/director divide is complete, irrevocable divestment of any commercial artworld interests. It’s not enough for him to stop dealing. He needs sever ties with the art business that he created.

Similarly, Christopher Knight, the LA Times‘ art critic, says this:

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….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.

But the main reason why hiring Deitch to direct LA MOCA seems like a bad idea is that it’s another wild fling for a museum that urgently needed to sober up. LA MOCA got into trouble and almost went under because of its deviation from time-honored museum management practices. It’s now hitched its star for someone known for throwing financial caution to the winds when an attractive project beckons. Good for him. Not good for MOCA.

The recommended text for Deitch’s substantial risk tolerance (and for anything else pertaining to Deitch) is his Nov. 12, 2007 profile in the New Yorker. Calvin Tomkins writes:

In the early nineties, Koons embarked on his most ambitious art project to date, a series, titled “Celebration,” of very large sculptures and paintings based on toys, party foods, and other images of early childhood….Convinced that “Celebration” would be one of the most ambitious bodies of work in a decade, Deitch formed a syndicate with two other dealers, and together they took over the project….In the next ten years, the costs of fabricating the “Celebration” series to Koons’s obsessively exacting specifications nearly brought Deitch to financial ruin.

Similarly, the belief of MOCA’s previous director, Jeremy Strick, that ambitious programming would somehow attract commensurate financial support almost brought the museum to financial ruin.

MOCA can’t afford to take another flyer. It needed a serious, seasoned museum professional, without commercial baggage and with a proven track record of keeping the proper balance between exciting programming and a balanced budget. The risks to its operations and reputation from its eccentric choice are too high.

UPDATE: Carol Vogel and Randy Kennedy of the NY Times, who briefly interviewed Deitch, report:

By the time he formally takes over the museum on June 1, he said, he will have ceased all of his commercial activities and will have closed his gallery.

I presume that at today’s press conference, all this will be clearly and thoroughly delineated. If it’s true, it should have been in writing, in the initial press release.

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