A year after nearly capsizing beneath the weight of an endowment drained by overspending that pre-dated the economic disaster of 2007 and a Board at loggerheads with itself, the Museum of Contemporary Art officially launched the era of Deitch. Prominent New York gallerist Jeffrey Deitch will assume the helm as of June 1, bringing a blend of multi-faceted experience as a leading player in the international art market. If Deitch is most noted for producing exhibitions in his own as well as many public venues at a breakneck pace, he also helped create Citibank’s art advisory business, and put in a stint as Flash Art’s American Editor, though these activities date back to the 1970s.
An element of skepticism that someone long established as a marketeer could be inviting trouble has immediately taken hold. The L.A. Times Art Critic, Christopher Knight typifies this concern: “There is nothing wrong with a lively and robust art market, but Deitch’s commercial commitments are problematic for his new job. The problem is that the market represents a very narrow slice of a vast art-pie.” Writes art historian, curator and writer Margarita Nieto: “It seems that the bridge or barrier between the marketplace and the museum no longer exists. The museum is the marketplace. Naming an interested party as director of a major museum not only responds to that concept, but the action in itself blurs that honored division of the two worlds.” That blurring has the appearance of a deliberate decision made by the MOCA Board of Trustees. Even assuming that Deitch brings solid integrity to the position, promoting artists commercially is a very different mission than representing contemporary art as a whole to the general public.
Coagula publisher Mat Gleason is as excited by this prospect as others are wary. “Is it win-win? Oh hell yeah. To see the art school bait and switch lie exposed as a false blueprint to professional success alone would have made this a wonderful triumph, but to see the Big Apple abandoned cold and hasty by the Elton John doppleganger who had 'Made It There' Frank Sinatra-style in favor of the 'left coast'. . .what more could Southern California want during a sunny 80-degree winter?” To be sure, Deitch is a graduate of Wesleyan University in Art History, and Harvard Business School with a M.B.A.
In a new interview with Tyler Green (see Modern Art Notes online at http://www.artsjournal.com/man) Deitch argues the continuity of his background with the new role: “My orientation is to try to do amazing things with living artists, to do ambitious, thematic historical shows - that's always been my motivation and I've been training all my life to be able to work on this larger platform as director of a major public museum. The ethic remains the same.”
Clearly, the highly unusual selection of an art dealer is even more of an attention grabber than Lady Gaga performing on a piano altered by Damien Hirst with the Bolshoi Ballet dancing away. If such boldness is indicative of an organizational desire to attract attention, mission accomplished. Time will tell whether the relatively plodding footsteps of so many academic and administrative predecessors make MOCA look prescient or foolhardy. It cannot be argued that having returned from its near death experience MOCA is shy to engage risk. If anything, the hiring of Deitch echoes the spirit of the art that MOCA presents to the world through a lens that reflects artists’ creative energy at a heroic scale. Expect him to foster an atmosphere in which unexpected things will happen; if sometimes this works and sometimes not, isn’t that the point?