Reactor

The Failures (and Some Successes) of Jeffrey Deitch in LA

by Kyle Chayka on October 24, 2012

Jeffrey Deitch (Image via latimes.com)

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).

Successes: 

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.

Failures: 

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.

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  • Rhiannon

    Remind me how is Marina Abramovic a plus after the outcry about the treatment of her dancers?

    • http://twitter.com/chaykak Kyle Chayka

      I also pointed out that the rotating heads were a major PR flub, and that many of the items were double-sided. That part was definitely not a plus, but no one can say it was a boring gala!

  • http://www.facebook.com/estacey718 Stacey Allan

    Hey Kyle, I think the “Attracting New Board Members” point is really not fair when you consider how many were lost. Not only the four artist-trustees, but others before that; and you have the four other life trustees that spoke out against him in the LA Times. http://articles.latimes.com/2012/jul/11/opinion/la-le-0712-thursday-moca-20120711

    • http://twitter.com/chaykak Kyle Chayka

      Hey Stacey, Thanks for the comment. I agree on balance Deitch has lost far more trustees than he has gained, but that is why I noted that he lost artist board members in the ‘Failures’ section. To be fair, I think it’s worth including the fact that he added noteworthy, non-art board members.

      • http://www.facebook.com/estacey718 Stacey Allan

        OK, but replacements aren’t gains, and it isn’t only artists that left the board and/or spoke out. It isn’t only “Driving out aritsts & curators” but also a broader subset of the board.

        • http://twitter.com/chaykak Kyle Chayka

          I regret leaving out the fact that other board members left, but I don’t really see why you would have a problem with me noting that gaining high-profile boardmembers is a success while the losses are failures.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Zack-Peabody/651953220 Zach Alan

      also the fact that MOCA is now widely seen as a bad place to put your charitable dollars due to the Deitch hubbub – attendance may be up but the feeling that this is a museum in trouble definitely isn’t attracting donors

      • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

        Though I do think its rather normal for executive directors to try to influence the make up of the board and for some members to leave while others join when a new direction (or no direction) is in the works.

  • http://www.facebook.com/estacey718 Stacey Allan

    Also, is that Maria Bell quote about the collection belonging to State of California confirmed as true? Similarly, I don’t have the dirt on attendance figures but do recall closures (The Geffen closed from Jan – June in 2009, and other shows canceled) that make those numbers incredibly miselading. Point is: Everyone—most of all MOCA—wants to reframe this as Ivory Tower v. Pop Culture kind of thing. Those who are here and paying attention see it differently.

  • gregorg

    I’ll echo Stacey’s skepticism about Maria Bell’s assertion that MOCA’s collection belongs to the “State of California.” That makes no sense, and the only possible interpretation is that the museum is chartered as a CA non-profit corporation which is nominally/theoretically subject to the jurisdiction of the Secretary of State and the State Attorney General. That the co-chair of the museum’s board doesn’t make that distinction is alarming at least.

    On a more trivial note, Trebay’s wrong on it, too, but Vezzoli’s gala predated Deitch’s arrival. Jeffrey’s first gala was the Doug Aitken “Happening,” which he [Deitch] pitched as a work of art in itself.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Zack-Peabody/651953220 Zach Alan

    you’re listing Barbara Kruger as an “among others”??? also: you omitted his painting over the mural at the art in the streets showhttp://www.ladowntownnews.com/news/moca-commissions-mural-then-whitewashes-it/article_5294889b-0546-5fc7-a754-601d8fdb6a98.html and his hiring of that hack shepard fairey http://mmxlii.com/moca-fires-paul-schimmel-hires-shepard-fairey-for-all-future-design-work/ – give me a moment, I’ll think of more I’m sure…

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Zack-Peabody/651953220 Zach Alan

      … like the fact that the Deitch crisis had made MOCA seem even more troubled than it generally has in the past (which is hard to manage given that MOCA seems to be CONSTANTLY in trouble) – not good for attracting new long term donors (this is also due in part that nobody else can out spend Broad, but the fact that MOCA’s now seen as run by “Deitch pawn of Broad” isn’t gonna fly with people looking to spend charitable dollars)

  • http://littledisappointments.com GirthBrooks

    “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.”
    ummmm the museum is in Los Angeles, not New York.

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