What’s so wrong with Deitch at MoCA?

Jeffrey Deitch UPDATE: It’s official. Deitch is the new director of MoCA.
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The Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA), which barely survived closing last year, is rumored to be close to announcing that they will appoint New York art dealer Jeffrey Deitch as their new director. (Other hats still in the ring at this final stage of the selection process include Lisa Phillips of the New Museum in New York and Lars Nittve of the Moderna Museet in Stockholm.) Word that Mr. Deitch was in the running for the position leaked out late last week, and that initiated a flood of opinions about the appropriateness of hiring a commercial art dealer as the director of a museum. Here’s but a small sample:

Jerry Saltz, New York magazine:

It looks like the sacrosanct wall between museums, galleries, and private collectors in the art world is about to come down. In what is a game-changer and a hail-Mary pass that will likely be fretted about by many, the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art appears ready to name New York art dealer Jeffrey Deitch its new director, according to multiple art world sources. [...] American museums usually pick directors from the curatorial or academic ranks; none have ever been run by a former gallery owner. Scolds will imagine immoral scenarios of a wolf in the fold and tut-tut over the possibility of an uncouth, craven commercial dealer trading museum treasures for market-share, making back room deals, and violating ethics.

Mike Boehm, Los Angeles Times reporting:

Jeff Poe of the L.A. gallery Blum & Poe [said] “My immediate response was that there’s no way, it doesn’t make any sense” that a leading dealer like Deitch would give up his business to lead a nonprofit museum, Poe said. “But the more I think about it, it would be really interesting. He would be able to deal with the politics involved in a job like that. I’d welcome him with open arms.”

[Hugh Davies, director of San Diego's Museum of Contemporary Art] predicted that if Deitch, who is in his late 50s, was the choice, he would face skepticism or worse about his move from the commercial end of the art world, championing the work of Jeff Koons, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, to museum work.

Even before opening a gallery myself, I never quite understood the widely held notion that commercial art dealers should be automatically disqualified from such positions. To be blunt, with many US museum directors known to have engaged in activities ranging from smuggling objects into the country to using public funding to finance vanity exhibitions designed to flatter certain powerful trustees, mere “immoral scenarios of a wolf in the fold” would be a significant ethical upgrade at many institutions. Moreover, among all the authority figures within the art world, the small business owners who trade in art are rare in putting their own money and hence personal financial security where their visions are. When Jeffrey Deitch or any dealer invests in an artist’s career, it is predominantly at his/her own personal risk. If there’s anything that MoCA seemed to have been in short supply of recently, it is this degree of real-world accountability.

Paraphrasing something journalist and museum monitor Tyler Green noted on Facebook over the weekend, the question shouldn’t be “Is it appropriate to make an art dealer the director of a museum?” but rather only “What makes this art dealer appropriate as the director of this museum?” In other words, why assert that there’s something inherently corrupting about the gallery owner profession? The only valid question is: what are this candidate’s qualifications for the job?

In the case of Mr. Deitch, Jerry Saltz makes the following case in his post:

Deitch, a gadfly and jack-of-all-trades, is a consummate insider with credibility and real-world skills. He not only has a Harvard MBA and was a Vice President of Citibank, he’s a great writer, a seasoned curator, has advised international collectors, and knows the inner workings of art and money, artists and collectors, institutions and the public. Really, the iffiest thing about Deitch has been his gallery program, loaded as it often is with youth-culture attractions, gratuitous raciness, and snazzy production numbers.

Besides what’s actually been published over the weekend, the amount of behind-the-scenes chatter over this rumor has been truly off the dial, at least in New York. The arguments against Mr. Deitch’s qualifications seem to range from he’s too New York-centric to understand what MoCA needs (an odd concern in the era of museums casting their nets globally to recruit) to he has no non-profit experience to he has no museum collection-building experience (although he has helped build some significant private collections and I’m pressed to understand the significant difference, save in funding methods).

One of the most interesting threads among the gossip, from my point of view anyway, is what happens to a dealer’s program in such a case? As there is no precedent, per se, it leaves several questions wide open, including Would he naturally favor the artists he’s been working with at the museum over others? Would his gallery program be taken over, intact, by someone else or simply dispersed? and Will he still throw those fabulous parties in Miami every December? (OK, so apparently only I am interested in that answer, but….)

Putting the fun of gossip aside, however, the only valid points for discussing the rumor seriously are comparing Mr. Deitch’s applicable experience in funding, managing boards, and building collections with those of the other candidates. He has proven himself capable of switching hats and doing an exemplary job in multiple work environments. The suggestion that somehow he’s ineligible because one of those environments was the commercial art world strikes me as unfounded and silly.

About Edward Winkleman

New York art dealer (Winkleman Gallery : www.winkleman.com) and author of blog on art and politics (http://edwardwinkleman.blogspot.com)

3 thoughts on “What’s so wrong with Deitch at MoCA?

  1. With the Wall Street Journal calling the appointment a certainty at this hour, it’s time for everyone to take a deep breath.

    Can one of the world’s foremost contemporary art dealers run a contemporary art museum? The question (the short answer to which is yes) seems tailor made for a classroom debate or a panel discussion–so hypothetical it might have seemed prior to last week’s early rumors. But here we are. Even if there is a late-breaking change, we’ve been handed a phenomenal opportunity to think out loud about art-world roles and the lingering sentimental attitudes attached to some of them.

    I spent much of the last several weeks reading MA thesis projects by my art business students. If there is a through-line among them, it has to do with the erasure of symbolic lines in the art world–whether it’s between art and fashion, art and commerce, art and design, between the respective roles of galleries and auction houses, among the manifold duties of nonprofit managers and the proliferating functions of art museums, or within the very nature of art objects themselves, which today bob and weave so seamlessly in and out of varied cultural domains, respecting no boundaries whatsoever.

    Looking beyond the art world, we see the same puncturing of heretofore sacrosanct red lines–like the lines between editorial and advertising functions in the media, or those between commercial and investment banking, or between any number of academic disciplines, or formerly adversarial counties and political blocks, and so forth.

    Each one of these erasures elicits the predictable outcry of the traditionalists–and frankly, there are valid reasons to be concerned, and much work to be done to instate new rules and guarantees for clarity and transparency. But the blending and merging of roles–in this case, for a professional who has spent many active and successful years on various art-world barricades–is simply a fact of life.

    Our choice, ultimately, is between a guild-like hardening of professional silos, or a more fluid opportunity to mingle successive jobs and careers. The art world is coming late to this party–behind lawyers and scientists and even politicians. There may be unexpected benefits.

  2. The lines between the not-for profit part of the (contemporary) art world and the for profit one has been blurred for some time, maybe it started with the birth of the freelance curator… the producer that was not permanently affiliated with a institution, but mounting different exhibition in different places, spaces and galleries? With the boom of curators in the late nineties and early 00s – has given birth to curators (independent or not) starting their own galleries. Many with the argument that in order to develope their curatorial experiments and the palette of artists they wanted to work with, a commercial gallery seemed like a as good platform as any other. Some examples are the former curator of Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst in Leipzig (and student in the very first batch of the De Appel independent curatorial study program), Jan Winkelmann, opening up his own gallery in 2003 (and closing it in 2007/08), both owners of Vitamin Creative Space in Guangzhou / Beijing as well as my fellow norwegian and former director of Stiftelsen Fotogalleriet, Eivind Furnesvik, owner of Standar gallery in Oslo. I am sure none of these, if asked, would exclude the idea (returning) to work for institutions, if the timing and concept is right.

    Also we have many examples of curatorial based projects that are experimental either in their funding, and or in the way they operate on a curatorial level. My best example for this is e-flux, it started out as a email based announcement agency which is now also a platform for very different projects such as the traveling Martha Rosler Library, The School in Berlin, The Video Rental asf. All financed through the announcements made by institutions, museums, etc.

    Then, I am not sure about the difference working for profit and working in not-for profit enviroments in the US, but the difference here in Norway (I am currently director of Institution for contemporary Photography in Oslo, Stitelsen Fotogalleriet) strikes me as fairly small. Many of my current work assignments comes close to those I used have as a Gallery director for pierogi in leipzig. THere is a difference, yes, a) most part of our funding comes from public sources b) we are not supposed to end the fiscal year in surplus (or deficit). And of course all artists has but one solo exhibiton etc. It should of course be noted that the size of the institution I am working for is de facto smaller, both in turnover, size of gallery space and number of shows mounted per year than the commercial gallery I used to work for – thus nothing like, a larger Kunsthalle or a museum. But there are analogues between the way I work now and what I used to do, not 1:1, but there are similarities.

    Although a very rare situation indeed, I a not sure if it is a bad one. My first and foremost question when I heard this was: will deitch projects close/be sold. this is now confirmed by the search committee (http://www.observer.com/2010/culture/jeffrey-deitch-makes-his-move-la-deitch-projects-will-close).

  3. Jeffrey Deitch’s appointment is symbolic and indicative of the changes that have already occurred in this “hybrid economy” that are providing new possibilities and allowing for significant malleability to the previously assumed roles of independent curators, producers and gallerists. With the economic recession and technology’s ability to re-articulate time, these changes have provided an opportunity to reexamine how art is shown, organized and supported, further providing an opportunity to question one’s role within the transitioning landscape.

    I’m quite surprised that we’re not seeing this more among the ranks of the larger art world system. I think Jeffrey’s appointment will allow for more support for these discussions. When I founded X Initiative a year ago to respond to shifts that were so prevalent in art world circles, I was immediately questioned less on the relativity of such a concept and endeavor but more from the perspective of what it meant to add that to my role as a commercial gallerist. Edward’s point discussing how we as gallerists also serve as solo producers of artistic production and dissemination, not only in our own spaces we fund, but also in museum spaces that cannot find the funding to do projects with artists they want to program, does often yield every gallerist to question why these boundaries exist in the first place.

    Jeffrey is a pioneer who has worked within the art world as one larger system, interconnected as it has always been and yet, in many ways, he was the first to fully represent every aspect of that system with formalized appointments. As he brings every previous experience to the table, (extensive knowledge of all periods of art, professional relationships with trustee level collectors and their collections, a sophisticated view of artistic production over three decades, a track record for writing and organizing exhibitions with artists and a sound and intelligent financial acumen) I am excited to see him turn MOCA around and elevate it to an international platform.

    Perhaps after that, we will bring more of these characteristics of cultural practice to the forefront and embrace the indeterminate quality of our professional practices as they are in flux. I’m looking forward to seeing things less defined and determined and more fluid.

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