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New MOCA Director Deitch Will Close His Gallery But That Doesn't Quiet Angry Art Mobs

Jeffrey Deitch

All the critics who were hemming and hawing about newly-named MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch's ability to direct a non-profit museum versus run a for-profit gallery have less to bitch about. According to the New York Observer, Deitch's gallery Deitch Projects will close by June 1, when he is scheduled to take the oath of office, as it were, in Los Angeles. A press conference this morning at MOCA made the announcement official.

Tyler Green at Modern Art Notes has the first interview with Deitch, a massive three-parter published last night, where Deitch reveals that he will provide a list of his entire collection for ethical reasons and does not plan to return to any gallery after his five-year contract is up: "No, I do not intend to go back to art dealing. I've always intended this as a wonderful opportunity, to take on the museum. I always intended to wrap up the commercial side of the gallery to write about this period I've been so involved in."

Still, this announcement is a small consolation to critics who are concerned about Deitch's ability to make a 180 in his professional life, as well as the bigger question of what will happen when artists which he has represented are championed through the museum's exhibits. A similar debate raised flags for the New Museum in New York when it was announced that Jeff Koons would curate a show from the collection of one of the museum's trustees, Dakis Joannou, a move that Deitch later defended during a talk at the Fashion Institute of Technology. (Ahem, Deitch has or has had business relationships with both Koons and Joannou, as well as MOCA founding chairman Eli Broad, proving that the art world is uncomfortably, unavoidably small.)

A press release from MOCA focused on touting Deitch's contributions as a consultant, writer, critic, and curator--which are no small potatoes, nor are his accomplishments while at Citibank, where he established a revolutionary-at-the-time program that advised patrons on their purchases.

Another question about Deitch's move is how it will affect the fate of the dozens of artists he represents, some of whom, according to the Wall Street Journal, get stipends and free housing. Aaron Rose, an artist and curator whose film Beautiful Losers featured many of Deitch's artists, says Deitch has always been very direct with his artists. "I have many friends and associates who get their bread and butter from Deitch Projects and so far all I have heard is how happy they are for him." At least one of Deitch's artists didn't seem to be overly concerned; Steve Powers posted this quip to Twitter: "jeffrey deitch taps chino to curate graffiti show for moca. This will be called MOCA CHINO."

As far as Deitch's art world qualifications, Green, whose Modern Art Notes is a kind of art world barometer, collected the first wave of Web-based criticism and makes a very good point: Deitch should be viewed strictly on his business acumen, not his curatorial merits since he's being hired as a fundraiser, and a non-profit fundraiser at that: "The difference between the for-profit/business world and the non-profit world and their attendant missions and responsibilities is why there's a discussion about whether it is appropriate to hire a businessman to be a non-profit/museum director."

MOCA may be one museum that's already comfortable blurring the lines between commercial and curatorial. The museum came under fire in 2007 for hosting a functioning Louis Vuitton pop-up store inside the exhibition @MURAKAMI, which sold the many products that artist Takashi Murakami created for the fashion label. Purists thought it was a bad idea to plant in the art world.

But this bleeding edge might be a trend, notes Paddy Johnson from Art Fag City: "MOCA [is] the second major museum in less than a week to appoint a head from the commercial world. Bill Moggridge, founder of the design firm Ideo, was appointed director of the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York last week." No one seemed to be concerned that Moggridge's ability to design and sell a laptop would hinder his abilities to head a museum that collects them. Deitch does mention in his interview one specific commercial idea: Reinventing the MOCA store as a retail concept.

Although many were quick to note that Deitch would be the first gallery owner to head a museum, the Internet's response has proven this is not true. Walter Hopps, the famous Ferus Gallery owner in L.A. went on to direct several museums. Richard Flood, who now directs the New Museum, came from a gallery background. Even Ann Philbin, who directs the Hammer Museum and is an old friend of Deitch's, headed a gallery first. But no collector has been as high profile as Deitch. Douglas Christmas, who has directed Los Angeles' longest-running gallery, the Ace Institute of Contemporary Art, since 1966, sees this as a strength, not a detraction. "Jeffrey knows the art world. He has always worked with the best and there's no reason why he wouldn't continue to," he says. "I would believe he would throw some curves into the concept of museum directorship. But I can't imagine he's going to do anything but a smashingly good job."

According to L.A. boosters, Deitch's genre-bending, no-precedent, breaking-with-tradition appointment could only really thrive in a place like Los Angeles. "I love that the most interesting conversation about museums is happening in L.A.: How do you balance the primary role of the museum--what's happening within its walls and scholarship--with the culture outside of it?" says Bettina Korek, director of L.A.-based arts resource ForYourArt. "You have to take that into consideration when we're in Hollywood--entertainment happens here!" It's not a connection many artists would like to make, she says: The art world has been exceptionally resistant to a new art reality show, Work of Art: The Next Great Artist.

Still, some artists are less-than-thrilled that Deitch is being heralded as this "savior" for L.A.'s floundering art world. "MOCA has been one of the great contemporary art museums in the world for over 20 years," says Diana Thater, a video artist based in L.A. "It doesn't require being made into that, it already is." She's concerned his presence will take the focus off L.A.'s artists and history. "I wonder that MOCA's new director doesn't say he's thrilled to 'join us' instead of excited to 'lead the museum'?" she says. "The first is about art and the art community, the second is about power and commerce. Both are necessary, but art is primary and commerce secondary."

To other Los Angeles artists, Deitch's relocation is an informed choice that brings new blood and new ideas to the city--and the global attention surely doesn't hurt. "Jeffrey is an phenomenal businessman. Even more important than that, though, is his reach," says Rose, who thinks Deitch will add a much-needed international perspective to the city's scene. "He's art-savvy, but even more importantly he is world-savvy...and he has the Rolodex to pull it off."

Photo: Patrick McMullan

Previously: MOCA Names Jeffrey Deitch as New Director [UPDATED]

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