The insular art world likes its public follies almost as much as Hollywood. We’re constantly looking for the latest slip-up, the misspoken press statement or flubbed exhibition. That’s why the trials and travails of Jeffrey Deitch as the director of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art have been so magnetic — it’s an ongoing soap opera, replete with plot twists. But is it time now for rebalance the books of Deitch’s tenure?
In the New York Times‘s Style section (long the home of fluff pieces), writer Guy Trebay has a barbed profile of Deitch that makes some effort to resuscitate his image, which has gone far downhill from his time as the artist-driven impresario of New York’s downtown gallery scene. Trebay points out that Deitch’s mistakes have been far more visible than his successes, which include adding notable members to the museum’s board, raising attendance from near-invisible levels, and bringing some of Hollywood’s glitz to the museum world.
Deitch seems to have spoken to Trebay, but the dealer’s own voice rarely features in the profile. Responding to his critics, Deitch said in a September interview, “I’ve been in this business for decades and I’m not in a position where somebody is going to knock down my self-confidence.” But the chatter around LA seems to hold that MOCA — along with Deitch’s reputation — is doomed. Trebay goes to lengths to point out what the director has done well at, but let’s do the math and figure out just what he has accomplished, or failed to (many of which are two sides of the same coin).
Attracting new board members: Deitch has brought heavy-hitters like heiress Wallis Annenberg, hedge fund manager Steven A. Cohen, and Hollywood mogul Ariel Emanuel to the museum’s board.
Raising attendance: In 2009, MOCA attendance was in a major lull at just 148,616. Last year, it rose to 402,255, Trebay reports — an undeniably huge increase.
Bringing Hollywood glitz: With galas directed by artists like Marina Abramovic and Francesco Vezzolli, Deitch has energized what has long been a staid area of museum culture and drawn in new donors.
Not driving the museum into oblivion: While this isn’t necessarily an accomplishment, Deitch isn’t in any danger of forcing MOCA to close or its collection to be dispersed. The collection belongs to the state of California, Maria Arena Bell, the co-chair of the board of trustees, notes.
Driving out artists and curators: Not only did head curator Paul Schimmel get fired under the Deitch regime, his practices caused world-renowned artists like Ed Ruscha, John Baldessari, and Catherine Opie, among others, to resign from the board.
Privileging buzz over intellect: By canceling a Jack Goldstein retrospective in favor of far more crowd-friendly shows from Dennis Hopper (curated by Julian Schnabel) and James Franco, Deitch has underlined his taste for entertainment over critical content.
Mounting PR flubs: Rotating heads, anyone?
Putting himself above the museum: By getting rid of the museum’s head curator and hedging about hiring another one, the director has communicated his intentions to stamp his name and brand all over the museum’s programming. Except, it’s not really cool to have an impresario-driven museum the way it might be to have a downtown
In the end, where does Deitch stand? He has certainly re-energized an institution that many had presumed dead, but in doing so he has sacrificed integrity in favor of quick-hit, headline-friendly curatorial choices and branding strategies. It might provide for immediate visibility, but it doesn’t ensure the long-term viability of the institution. Glamor, though attractive, is often the enemy of critical success.