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How Jeffrey Deitch’s MOCA Appointment Changes the Art World

Jeffrey Deitch

The appointment of Jeffrey Deitch as director of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art last week — the first time a major art dealer will run an American museum — leaves a vacuum in the New York art world and boosts or hurts a host of players. It’s a game-changer, but whose game, exactly, does it change? Here’s an assessment of the fallout.

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Jeffrey Deitch
He’s an obvious winner in Los Angeles, of course, but some expect Deitch to wind up with bi-coastal power. “He’ll have one foot in New York,” predicts Larry Warsh, an art collector who serves on the board of the Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat with Deitch. The MOCA could end up endorsing the “Goog model,” says Warsh, and add MOCA satellites or partnerships worldwide. He could even start a branch in New York (Deitch says he will close his galleries here by May, but intends to maintain a presence via guest exhibits). "That wouldn’t surprise me at all," says Warsh. Moreover, while Deitch told the L.A. Times he'll be taking a financial hit to run MOCA, things might not be so bad. He's discussed a deal with board chairman Eli Broad, a source close to the matter says, that will likely augment his basic salary and housing package. (Similar to the trust set up for MoMA's Glenn Lowry by Agnes Gund and David Rockefeller.)


L.A. Art Collectors

Patrick McMullan

Eli Broad, Dean Valentine, Leonard Nimoy, and Sex and the City producer Darren Star all have close ties to MOCA, to Deitch, or to both. Broad and Valentine in particular collect works by "Deitch artists" and can expect the onetime dealer to continue to believe in them, via loans of his own art or helping to place the artists with galleries. But will he exhibit artists like Cecily Brown, Kurt Kauper, and Kehinde Wiley at MOCA? The new director has stressed that he's no longer in the art business and that he'll be guided by the board. But, eventually he'll have to show some of “his” artists, because he's worked with — or even discovered — some of the more interesting and successful names of the last two decades.


Shamim Momin

Patrick McMullan

Last summer the art-world party girl and co-curator of the 2008 Whitney Museum Biennial exited her full-time gig at the museum and launched a Los Angeles art nonprofit, LAND. Now, the longtime supporter of artists like Terence Koh and Ryan McGinness finds herself in an L.A. contemporary-art scene that may get a lot more attention. Deitch is talking about doing some “pretty radical things” at MOCA, says Momin, who’s “very happy” about the appointment. She’s already teaming up with the institution for a show that opens at MOCA’s Geffen Contemporary building on Saturday, January 23.


Jeff Koons

Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images

In November, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art announced the latest postponement of a $25 million commission by Koons — a 70-foot locomotive suspended from a crane. Now with one of the artist’s closest friends (Deitch threw Koons’ 50th birthday party) taking over the rival institution, he could be back in play on the left coast.


Sotheby’s
Deitch didn’t just work there, he was a senior vice-president. In 1998, the auctioneer bought a half-interest in Deitch Projects and the right to act as the U.S. agent for artists he represented. So, though the deal was later unwound, Sotheby’s has both closer ties to Deitch and his artists than Christie’s. Why does that matter? Deitch will likely be selling some art as part of the process of separating from Deitch Projects, and may even sell some of MOCA's. The museum has no history of deaccessioning work, but insiders at the museum and at auction houses say Deitch, as an ex-commercial gallerist, may be more likely to look to inventory (i.e., the permanent collection) to raise funds immediately.


Ambitious Art Dealers
Now that the Deitch appointment has broken a longstanding wall between dealers and museums, similar hires are more likely in the future. “You can argue that it shows that it's a hybrid business, that you need art and business (administrative) credentials to make a go of it," says Andras Szanto, a professor of art business at the Sotheby’s Institute of Art.


Gavin Brown

Patrick McMullan

Is he the next Deitch? With artists like Elizabeth Peyton, Rob Pruitt, and Peter Doig, “he’s already well-positioned with the broad program and multiple spaces,” says one big player in the Pop Art market. After all, if one impresario leaves town, doesn’t that leave more oxygen for the other? Brown presaged Deitch’s party scene and museum clout with his Passerby bar in the meatpacking district and close ties to the New Museum — and he didn’t even have to go work there.


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The Curatorial Class
Robin Parness Lipson, who is putting together a New Jersey Museum of Contemporary Art, says “academia is perfect for curatorial scholarship but running a business is the reality today ... even for a not-for-profit museum.” Those really shocked and affected by MOCA’s surprise pick are “the purists, the cultural absolutists — and the people who’ve been waiting in line” for museum jobs, says Szanto.


"Lesser" Deitch Artists

Kristen Baker,
The Unfair Advantage, 2003;

Courtesy of The Saatchi Gallery

When it comes to art, Deitch’s genius is partly about throwing so much against the wall that something had to stick — his own website lists nearly 40 artists. Big Deitch-associated names like Kehinde Wiley or Barry McGee will be fine even if he never exhibits them at MOCA, and several of “his” artists were already formally represented by other galleries. But the “Deitch artists” who don’t already have star status or international networks, like Kristin Baker or Brad Kahlhamer, could find themselves without support.


Soho
There are still more than three dozen art galleries in the neighborhood — Spencer Brownstone, Brooke Alexander, June Kelly, Staley-Wise, Harris Lieberman — but Deitch is the one who's been keeping the Dan Flavin light on here for a decade. His departure removes critical mass.


Burlesque Dancers and the New York Avant-Garde

iStockPhoto

Many of Deitch’s most famous parties or performance pieces have involved nudity (Vanessa Beecroft’s naked models at Deitch Projects in Long Island City), strippers (Julie Atlas Muz rolling around Art Basel Miami in a bubble), or drag — and often all three. The art world is rooting for Deitch’s directors (Kathy Grayson and Nicola Vassell) to make a go of some descendant of Deitch Projects, but will they be well-funded enough to keep up the spectacle? “I don’t know if anybody steps into his shoes,” says art curator Renee Riccardo. “He was spending a lot of money on avant-garde projects nobody else would touch.”


And ... Jeffrey Deitch?
Not everyone thinks Deitch’s move presages great things for the contemporary-art world. "My personal view is that, now that he’s in L.A., no one will ever hear from him again," says Artnet.com critic Charlie Finch."You know, you can write whole books on differences between the Guggenheim, Whitney, and MoMA, but here we can’t even tell the difference between MOCA and LACMA."

Photo: Getty Images