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

Jeffrey Deitch in front of LA MOCA’s Giacomettis

Just when New York dealer Jeffrey Deitch might have thought that the blow-up had subsided regarding his controversial appointment as the incoming director of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, more negative news was reported yesterday by the LA Times. What’s more, CultureGrrl is about to break even more startling news today.

Art critic Christopher Knight yesterday reported:

On March 25, the Museum of Contemporary Art will hold a fundraising event at Blum & Poe, an important art gallery in Culver City. The commercial entanglement makes one blanch, especially given the controversial appointment in January of New York art dealer Jeffrey Deitch as MOCA’s new director. Appearances matter….MOCA is stumbling into troublesome territory.

If that commercial entanglement “makes one blanch,” this one will make one faint:

After my initial post criticizing the appointment of Deitch as director of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, I promised you a follow-up, composed with thought and care and giving Jeffrey sufficient time to reconsider his decision not to speak to me. (After his anointment was officially consecrated at January’s LA press conference, Deitch had precipitously canceled our appointment for a 20-minute phone interview that had been arranged by LA MOCA’s press office.)

I have now managed to have a brief but telling chat with Jeffrey Deitch in New York. My conviction that he is wrong for the job has been reinforced by his new revelation to me about what he intends to do after becoming the director of the previously embattled, financially challenged museum:

Jeffrey Deitch explicitly stated to me that he intends to continue selling some of his gallery’s inventory AFTER he assumes the directorship of LA MOCA on June 1.

I spoke with Deitch on Mar. 3, after he and Norman Rosenthal, the former exhibitions secretary at London’s Royal Academy, shared the stage for the Guggenheim Museum’s first annual Robert Rosenblum Lecture—a series created in the memory of the late art historian and Guggenheim curator of 20th-century art.

Seeing Deitch standing at the back of the Guggenheim’s auditorium after he was warmly greeted by a succession of friends and well-wishers, I approached him and asked if we could set up a meeting to discuss his MOCA appointment. He declined, saying that he hadn’t spoken to me when he was in Los Angeles because he didn’t wish to say any more about himself than he had in all the previous interviews. (He did grant Ann Landi a two-hour audience for her friendly ARTnews profile in this month’s issue.)

I inquired whether he’d allow me to ask him a couple of questions right there. He agreed.

I first asked whether his gallery would continue carrying on its activities in any way after he left. (He had previously told Mike Boehm of the LA Times that he might transfer some of the business to current gallery staffers.) He assured me that Deitch Projects would cease all operations as of May 31 and (in response to my follow-up question) he added that he would not profit in any way from his staffers’ subsequent activities.

So far, so good.

Then I asked about statements he had made to the press that he might occasionally sell art objects while serving as LA MOCA’s director. What I had in mind (although I didn’t say so) was his plan, as described by Deitch in an interview with Southern California Public Radio, to possibly unload some pieces from his personal collection “to supplement a museum director’s salary.”

But instead of talking to me about his personal collection, he discussed his gallery’s “enormous” unsold inventory. He couldn’t possibly liquidate his entire stock in the next three months, he told me, so he expected occasionally to put some of those pieces up for auction.

“Isn’t that ‘dealing’?” I blurted out, thrown off-guard by this astonishing admission.

He then backpedaled: He would sell only lesser works at minor auctions “like Christie’s Open.” (Works in Christie’s most recent First Open sale went for as much as $842,500.) The more important pieces would be transferred from his gallery’s inventory to his private collection (from which he had previously stated that he might occasionally sell works).

He then reverted to Jeffrey-as-victim, complaining about being subjected to this importunate line of questioning when he was sacrificing “millions of dollars in opportunity costs” (i.e., money that he would otherwise have made), by giving up future gallery earnings for a nonprofit museum director’s salary.

My own view (which I kept to myself) is this: If he feels so put-upon, he shouldn’t give up his business. He should give up the directorship. If he’s as excited about directing LA MOCA as he says he is, then he should stop bemoaning “lost opportunity costs” and find a way to live within his (presumably) not inconsiderable means.

But let’s go back to conduct even more unbecoming a museum director—his plan to possibly auction off gallery inventory (whether important works or lesser ones) after he assumes his new post. My question to him about whether that constitutes “dealing” grew out of my knowledge of the following commandment, enunciated in the “Code of Ethics for Art Museum Directors” that is published in the Association of Art Museum Directors’ Professional Practices in Art Museums (second paragraph, P. 20):

A director shall not deal in works of art.

I had already conducted an exasperatingly inconclusive interview with Bill Eiland, AAMD’s professional issues chairman and director of the Georgia Museum of Art, on the question of how “dealing” is defined in AAMD’s lexicon. Before I had learned that Deitch was contemplating selling gallery inventory while serving as LA MOCA’s director, I had believed that Deitch’s avowed plan to possibly liquidate some of his private collection for cash was problematic enough to raise serious ethical issues.

LA MOCA’s board co-chair, David Johnson, had told the LA Times that any sales by Deitch would be done in conformance with AAMD guidelines, and that the museum would be given right of first refusal if Deitch sold anything. But that seemed only to dig the museum deeper into the conflict-of-interest hole: Should a director be hawking works to his own museum because he needs cash? If AAMD’s guidelines contemplate that, I’ve yet to discover the relevant passage. And if selling gallery inventory doesn’t constitute “dealing” in the eyes of AAMD, I don’t know what does.

Eiland conceded to me that the association’s code of ethics fails to define what specific activities and circumstances are encompassed by the thou-shalt-not-deal edict. The code does allow for directors’ collecting works for their own enjoyment, with “extraordinary discretion,” but says nothing about whether or under what circumstances directors can sell. “That’s something we need to work on,” Eiland agreed. He declined to make any comments directly addressing the Deitch/MOCA situation.

At the rate he’s going, Jeffrey Deitch could become the first art museum director to incur a warning from AAMD before even assuming his post. At the very least, the museum elders should transmit some initiation wisdom to this new member of the tribe. He needs to know that the freewheeling, anything-goes ethos of the contemporary gallery world has no place in the nonprofit museum world, where public accountability, conflict-of-interest prohibitions and administrative transparency are not just niceties. They’re imperatives.

In yesterday’s report, Knight said MOCA was “stumbling into troublesome territory.” I’d say that it’s jumped into quicksand with both feet.


Deitch Projects, two weeks ago

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