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Saltz on the End of Jeffrey Deitch’s Doomed MoCA Tenure

MOCA Director Jeffrey Deitch speaks at "The Artist's Museum Happening" MOCA Los Angeles Gala sponsored by Chanel Fine Jewelry held at MOCA Grand Avenue on November 13, 2010 in Los Angeles, California. Jeffrey Deitch

It was always only a question of when, never if. Today, when arrived. After less than 48 months, following massive community objection to his appointment in the first place and nearly constant controversy, maverick art dealer Jeffrey Deitch has left his position as director of Los Angeles’ tremendous but dysfunctional Museum of Contemporary Art.

The marriage was made in hell — mainly because MoCA was in such a state of brokenness it seemed almost impossible for anyone to do the job. By 2008, MoCA had lost almost all of its $50 million endowment, with museum board members dropping the ball time after time, and late that year MoCA accepted a $30 million bailout loan from billionaire museum Darth Vader Eli Broad. Then things really unraveled. By the time of Deitch’s hiring in 2010, MoCA had lost its director, was being run by an interim one, and had become completely demoralized — on the verge of collapse. No one wanted the job of running the place. Especially with Broad on board. Enter Deitch.

MoCA was so close to gone then, I thought that Deitch — whom I called “the weirdest” art dealer there is — might be able to raise money and increase the gate. He’d curated great shows, both at his own Deitch Projects gallery and elsewhere; is a crackerjack writer; is as energetic as they come; and would excel at the dirty work of dining with very rich people every night of the year to raise funds. But the instant he was announced a furor erupted over a museum hiring an art dealer as director. Really? One of Los Angeles’ and America’s greatest museum Directors, the Hammer’s Ann Philbin, is a former art dealer. LaCMA director Michael Govan was Thomas Krens's right hand man, for God’s sake. It wasn’t that Deitch was an art dealer, though, that set LA off; it was his weirdness.

Deitch isn't an art dealer in any traditional sense. At all. His gallery would go from being a salon to a club to a stage show to housing an actual skateboard tube to serious artist surveys to showing the latest street sensation. He produced the band Fischerspooner and helped oversee an event by his artist Vanessa Beecroft, known for her "performances" featuring dozens of naked women standing in stilettos for hours, and Navy officers standing at attention on the deck of the aircraft carrier Intrepid. He didn't need the MoCA job either; his gallery was going great guns, and his own collection of contemporary art is probably worth tens of millions of dollars. He may also be the world's greatest authority on the artist everyone loves to hate and make rich, Jeff Koons. So enamored is he of Koons that by now he even sounds and stands like him. That's love. Or weirdness.

By all accounts Deitch began by doing what he was hired to do. He raised money. The gate went through the roof. Soon he installed himself in an 8,000-square-foot Los Feliz home and began making the LA scene as diligently as he had in New York. Deitch knew well the history of MoCA is that of a self-made museum: legendary curators, exhibitions, and total commitment to art. Deitch lived and breathed this history from New York, like all of us. He loved it as much as any Angeleno. But LA never took to him. His powerful business sense, the very things the museum needed, scared everyone. It was thought that Deitch would show his own artists in the museum and continue dealing art on the down-low; he was too crass for LA. He was savaged from the start.

And, crucially, being a museum director is a far cry from being a curator, an art dealer, a fundraiser, or having this sort of entrepreneurial flair. Most of all it is a team job. Art dealers, all of them are driven by the mad need to create the exact visual world that they think the world can't live without. Whether charged to do so or not, he soon oversaw devastating staff layoffs, so large that the museum could barely function as a museum anymore. Publications were being farmed out. If this was life support it also felt like a terrible blow to the museum’s morale — a loss of personnel that also meant the irretrievable loss of institutional memory. Without that, a museum’s life is in the balance.

This toxic cocktail goes some way in explaining why Deitch may have been doomed from the start. Nothing he could do would be seen through an untainted lens, and a number of Deitch’s exhibitions, projects, and events were indeed reviled. I never saw any of them. LA loves Dennis Hopper, but Deitch jobbed out the curating of the show of Hopper's photographs to artist-director Julian Schnabel. A show titled Rebel included James Franco. Of course there was Marina Abramovic’s naked-people-on-dinner-tables annual gala event. “Oops.” Yet, there were shows I thought people might like: The Painting Factory: Abstraction After Warhol and a huge show about graffiti, Art in the Streets. After he announced plans for a show on Disco it all went to hell. All four artists on the museum’s board, including Ed Ruscha and Barbara Kruger, resigned. One can only wonder what might have happened had instead of Disco Deitch proposed a show on Punk (not the failed fashion show at the Met). That week I knew that Deitch’s when was nigh. 

Today it came. Not a minute too soon for much of the LA art community. I feel the same way. For the last year or so Deitch seemed in a paradoxical state of agony and delusion, always trying to fix the problem. Just when I thought he'd leave last spring, he stayed to do a large exhibition of Urs Fischer. That show was ravaged by critics, too. In 2010 I thought Deitch’s appointment would work long enough to fix the crisis. I now know he was the wrong dealer in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong autocrat overlord. In fact, Jeffrey Deitch is too “weird” to be a museum director. But I love Deitch’s weirdness. His gallery shows were all over the place. He was New York’s hardest working man in showbiz, our own impresario Peggy Guggenheim. He’s totally in love with art, artists and the art world, someone who’s discovered and nurtured artists, someone whose eye has been as sharp as anyone’s.

Whatever happens to this great museum I hope it finds a way to quit Broad. He’s pure poison to the place. He ought to just tend to the upcoming opening of his own museum … across the street from MoCA. In the meantime, I hope Deitch reopens a gallery in New York City and rejoins the rest of us weirdos.

Photo: John Shearer/Getty Images