What’s so wrong with Deitch at MoCA?
UPDATE: It’s official. Deitch is the new director of MoCA.
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:
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.