It looks like the sacrosanct wall between museums, galleries, and private collectors in the art world is about to come down. In what is a game-changer and a hail-Mary pass that will likely be fretted about by many, the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art appears ready to name New York art dealer Jeffrey Deitch its new director, according to multiple art world sources. An official announcement will be made on Monday morning (update: MOCA has confirmed that Deitch will be the new director); reached via email, Deitch admitted he was in “discussion” with MOCA.
American museums usually pick directors from the curatorial or academic ranks; none have ever been run by a former gallery owner. Scolds will imagine immoral scenarios of a wolf in the fold and tut-tut over the possibility of an uncouth, craven commercial dealer trading museum treasures for market-share, making back room deals, and violating ethics. But bear in mind that MOCA desperately needs to think outside the box (as do many more museums). After mounting numerous memorable exhibitions over the decades, the museum was woefully mismanaged by its board and under-funded by the notoriously stingy Hollywood community. In 2008, it almost went under.
Hiring Deitch wouldn’t be like handing over the reins to the head of an auction house or to mega-shaker Larry Gagosian — although Gagosian’s shows of late have been better than most museums. Deitch, a gadfly and jack-of-all-trades, is a consummate insider with credibility and real-world skills. He not only has a Harvard MBA and was a Vice President of Citibank, he’s a great writer, a seasoned curator, has advised international collectors, and knows the inner workings of art and money, artists and collectors, institutions and the public. Really, the iffiest thing about Deitch has been his gallery program, loaded as it often is with youth-culture attractions, gratuitous raciness, and snazzy production numbers. (The question of what would happen to Deitch Projects if he takes the MoCA job is an interesting one.)
Deitch is more than a high-flying impresario. He’s a high-flying impresario who can meet with artists, handle pesky millionaires, raise money, and run a business. He knows what curators are up against and values museums. Deitch is used to getting things done quickly, with pizzazz, efficiency, and on-budget. It would be interesting to see if he has the stomach, the patience, and gravitas to be a museum director.
Such a bold move might backfire — Deitch may be unable to right the museum, settle its debts, or deal with hiring and firing people. He could default to his weakness and go for the glitz. But the art world says it loves unexpected creative decisions. This could be an inspired one that raises the game of many museums.