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In a fairly abrupt turnaround, the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art announced yesterday that it will hire a new chief curator, after the controversial resignation at the end of June of Paul Schimmel, who held the chief curator position for 22 years. Originally, MOCA had announced that it would not replace Schimmel, instead going full Deitch, i.e. allowing director Jeffrey Deitch to lead the museum’s curatorial program.

Although the LA Times has incontrovertibly led the story of the unfolding MOCApocalypse over the past month and a half, the chief curator scoop went to Bloomberg Businessweek, of all places. Maybe the museum is trying to get back at the Times for Christopher Knight’s multiple scathing op-ed pieces.

A letter from MOCA’s executive committee quoted in Bloomberg explains the news. And although it strategically avoids saying so outright, it seems that all the backlash and hubbub from Schimmel’s firing did fuel a reconsideration of the previous decision:

“In the past weeks we have witnessed considerable media attention and criticism directed at MOCA and its leadership, particularly at our director,” the executive committee said in a letter to trustees. The hiring of a new chief curator “will enable us to continue to strengthen this institution with the resources necessary for the director to succeed.”

The letter also says that the museum plans to set up a “special curatorial fund to endow the position” and will only form a committee to nominate candidates for the job after that’s done. This seems odd, at best, since the position still existed less than a two months ago; it may signal that the museum’s longstanding financial problems have not abated under Deitch.

In other MOCA news, Deitch once again sat down for an interview with the LA Times, this time to defend the seriousness and scholarship of his exhibitions at the museum. “What seems to bother Deitch most are complaints that he has courted celebrity sizzle and populist appeal at the expense of serious scholarship,” Reed Johnson writes, in a piece that comes off as a tad overeager to right the paper’s past wrongs. Johnson quaintly characterizes Deitch as “the museum’s colorful and controversial director” and has him lamenting his embattlement “in a tone more sorrowful than angry.”

Interestingly, Deitch took at jab at the Times itself during the interview, which may lend credence to the idea that the museum wanted to give another publication a head start on the chief curator news:

“Your average cultured reader, reading the L.A. Times, thinks that I’ve destroyed the museum, that I’ve dismantled all intelligence from the program, that we’re doing nothing serious, that we’re showing, like, celebrity portraits or something, that nobody on the staff gets along with me,” he says. “And that is not what’s happening here.”

Overall, Deitch’s argument is that the future of MOCA, and visual art, lies less in visual art, per se, and more in an holistic picture of art and culture. “He wants MOCA to be at the intersection of ‘these giant cultural trends that span innovation in art, music, fashion’ and often bubble up from underground subcultures,” according to the interview.

This is sort of the argument of Kyle Fitzpatrick, who penned a long essay defending MOCA on the blog Los Angeles, I’m Yours — which, it should be noted, the editors will graciously allow you to read but not comment on: “If you disagree or have something to add, please don’t bitch in our comments as we will not share them,” they write. Alarm signal #1.

In the piece, Fitzpatrick draws a distinction between “contemporary art, past” and “contemporary art, present” or “contemporary art, future,” and says that MOCA under Deitch should be applauded for tuning into the latter. I see his point, but unfortunately, most of the essay reads as confused and under-informed, from its opening statements about the future of culture living in digital clouds (I’m still not sure what this has to do with MOCA) to its assertion that MOCA’s recent decisions represent “how art is becoming less about the art world and more about the world.” If anyone can explain to me what James Franco has to do with “the world,” please do.

Like other supporters, Fitzpatrick cites Art in the Streets an example of MOCA’s recent successes, and while, yes, that exhibition brought in a record number of visitors, it was also widely criticized in the street art community as being too safe and a missed opportunity.

There will always be those in the art world — as in the larger world —who want nothing but the status quo, who decry any change as unwanted or bad. Those people are not particularly useful. But I suspect many critics of Deitch and MOCA are not those people; I suspect they’re concerned far less with MOCA bringing the larger world to the art world as with, say, the budding influence of Hollywood at the museum.

On this point, Fitzpatrick writes:

Like corporations, Hollywood has money and is eager to get involved in ways of expression. Art – like the movies, like music, like fashion – is about making an art piece. Regardless of how high end or low end the result may be, it is creating something. If James Franco and Drew Barrymore want to step in and create art, why should we care?

That statement is so wrongheaded, I don’t even know where to begin.

Have many art worlders been overly jumpy and critical of Deitch in recent months, sometimes for the wrong reasons? Yes. Should we welcome “contemporary art, present”? Of course. But that doesn’t mean museums should ditch their curatorial standards and critical faculties in the process. Even Deitch knows that.

Jillian Steinhauer is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. She writes largely about the intersection of art and politics but has also been known to write at length about cats. She won the 2014 Best...

3 replies on “LA MOCA to Deitch: “No, You Can’t Do Everything””

  1. Glad they’re hiring a Chief Curator, but I predict it will be someone with star power, not a Ph.d. And maybe that’s fine.

    Thanks for pointing out that as much as Deitch sounds like a total twit when talking about what art is or isn’t, the orthodoxy of the ‘art world’ reveals itself to be just as narrow-minded.

    Deitch’s vision of kool kids art a la Vice magazines is just shallow and forgettable, yet the art establishment’s desire for academic shows full of pretentious wall texts, dry, abject objects, and claims for political traction (funded by a bank, shhh) is alienating and hypocritical.

    In other words, both approaches need to be revamped. I don’t have high hopes that MoCA will find that balance, but stranger things have happened.

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