A New Boss, and a Jolt of Real-World Expertise

Written on January 21, 2010 by Felicia Appenteng in Arts & Cultures & Societies, Philosophy


As published in the New York Times


When the going gets desperate, the desperate get creative. On Monday the beleaguered Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles named as its new director Jeffrey Deitch, a prominent New York art dealer. This comes less than a week after Bill Moggridge, a prominent industrial designer and businessman, became the first design practitioner to head the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York — an institution thought by many to lack vision.

The Deitch news has of course overshadowed the Moggridge news in the art world, but the appointees are similar in many ways. Both lack experience in museum administration but have plenty of hands-on, real-world experience running businesses, collaborating with other practitioners and making creative things happen in the fields their museums focus on. Each appointment confirms that the other is not an anomaly, and together they represent a kind of wake-up call for museums in general. They point to a return to basics in American museum culture.

Still, it is the choice of Mr. Deitch in particular that has stunned the art world, and not just because art dealers aren't often named to head major museums.

For all the objections that will be raised, some legitimate, it is a brilliant stroke for the Museum of Contemporary Art and may be a harbinger of renewed institutional spirit and will. Less than two years ago, the museum, once the city's premier institution of the new, was in serious crisis. It suddenly found its lunch being eaten by two other local museums that have, within the last two years, been revived by dynamic new directors, Ann Philbin at the Hammer Museum of Art at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Michael Govan at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

These two had galvanized their institutions and their boards, siphoning attention, trustees, art and money away from their competitor. Meanwhile, the Museum of Contemporary Art was in debt and was just surviving by drawing down its endowment. In late 2008, to loud objections from the art-loving public, its board contemplated closing the museum and selling its collection or merging with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The temporary solution was only slightly more palatable: accepting $30 million from Eli Broad, the former chairman of the museum's board.

Still, there are potential problems with the appointment, not the least being Mr. Broad, whose gift to the museum has given him an unusual degree of control. A major collector of contemporary art as well as a longtime client of Mr. Deitch's, he is understood to have been heavily involved in the pick — as he was said to be in the choice of Mr. Govan, the former director of the Dia Art Foundation in New York, to lead the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2006. The idea of this one rich man having so much say in the city's official art culture is, at the very least, unnerving to many. Of course, Mr. Deitch's history of financial involvement with the work of certain artists is worrying to some.

But Mr. Deitch's selection should rebalance power and energy among the local institutions, a development that may very well make Los Angeles the most exciting city in the world for museums of contemporary art, the place where the future of museums takes shape. And the move reflects something significant about the state of American museums and their need for new blood. It may be the start of a reversal of the tide of academically trained directors in favor of the autodidacts. Although he has a Harvard M.B.A., what Mr. Deitch knows about art comes from doing, from writing criticism, organizing exhibitions, working with artists and finally running an art gallery.

And Mr. Deitch is not just any art dealer. For one thing, despite running a free-form, often funky art gallery — sometimes as a nonprofit, as others have noted — he has always looked like a museum director. His hair is always in place; he wears almost without fail a dark (bespoke?) suit and French cuffs. More to the point, he will bring solid curatorial experience, an open eye and distinct impresario leanings to his new position.

He has been at various times a museum curator, an art critic, a magazine editor and an art consultant. He has organized large exhibitions for museums abroad and tends to have his finger on several pulses at once. An early advocate of graffiti art in the 1980s, he has more or less introduced New York to its vibrant successor, street art, which originated in San Francisco in the 1990s among artists on the fringe of the skateboard scene. He has run his SoHo gallery as an ad hoc kunsthalle in which art, music, fashion and the street collide, and just about anything can happen.

He enjoyed bringing to town things that might otherwise not get here. One of his exhibitions consisted primarily of a beautiful skate-boarding bowl designed by Simparch that was part of Documenta XI in Kassel, Germany. Last summer his Wooster Street Gallery, Deitch Projects, a former commercial garage, was filled with "Black Acid Co-op," an incisive yet witty tour through various drug cultures and a simulated red-carpeted art gallery, which three artists had originally dreamed up for an alternate space in Marfa, Tex.

The job of museum director and gallerist have areas of overlap and disagreement. Of all the subspecies of art world professional, art dealers must maintain working relationships with all the others: artists, collectors, curators, critics and also museum directors. This may make Mr. Deitch actually exceptionally well prepared for his new job. At the same time art dealers tend to be the masters of their own universes, however small and short of cash they may be. They usually make their own decisions and report to no one.

Mr. Deitch's new job requires that he close his gallery, a move that leaves a big hole in the New York art scene. His particular universe was an amazing one, but it will be interesting to see if he can create another playing by a new set of rules.

The Museum of Contemporary Art, like the Cooper-Hewitt, knew that if it were to survive or grow, it had to do something different. It definitely has.


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