Saturday, January 16, 2010

Hollywood meets Hallowed Hall

© Jeffrey Deitch by Lawrence K. Ho for the LA Times

What an interesting brouhaha over uber-dealer / impressario Jeffrey Deitch becoming the director of MoCA (the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles).

I "grew up" as a professional curator in LA and loved the raw vitality of MoCA, its programming and collection-building. (In full disclosure: current MoCA Chief Curator Paul Schimmel hired me as an NEA curatorial assistant at the Newport Harbor Art Museum when I moved to LA, then hired me on full-time afterwards.) MoCA's programs have been some of the best in the contemporary art world, and its recent threatened closure speaks volumes about board fiscal responsibility (or not). It is this fiscal crisis that has opened the door to Deitch walking in.

The commercial-to-non-profit switch has been made before (a recent visible example is Henry Urbach closing his architecture gallery to become the curator of architecture at SFMoMA). What counts is whether or not that for-profit person has the skills to benefit the museum, to advance the non-profit's mission and to understand the difference between non and for-profit ethics.

Deitch has a business and art background, has twisted the norms of gallery behavior through his kunsthalle-like programs, and surely is Hollywood enough to capture the big film money that generally eludes LA's important cultural institutions (although "Brangelina" was at MoCA's 30th anniversary party!)

Perhaps this appointment is more shocking because it makes apparent (again) the power of rich board members to drive museum policy while they helped trigger an institution's near-death experience? Perhaps it's because Deitch is the director, not just a curator who takes cues from the top? Perhaps it's because museums have been the last bastion of "public discourse" in an otherwise fully monetized American landscape, and that last defense has now fallen? Is it because, in these desperate times, having a money changer in the temple of art is the only way for non-profits to save themselves?

What will answer these questions will be Deitch's performance in furthering MoCA's substantial exhibitions program, his penetration into the culture that is LA, his support of the staff that is there and his holding back from the type of street art that he has championed in the past few years. (LA does not have the same type of street life that NY has, and you can only pull that bunny out of the museum hat ever so often.)

Have I lost my capacity to be outraged by conflict-of-interest issues in the world, particularly the art world? After the economy being driven into the tank, again, by Wall Street insiders and the politicians that feed and pet them, how can this possibly register on my rage-o-meter?

I'll say it: I think this is a brilliant, quirky, irreverant hire. So many art world insiders stand on line for their turn at the big hit, and someone just jumped the line.

The arts suffered in the 1980s when MBA's flooded museum director chairs and made decisions that undermined good museum practice. This why a training program for curators interested in becoming directors has started through Columbia University--to ensure that art and business co-exist--and we can avoid these problems in the future.

A parallel, if more understandable, arts brain drain has been the poaching of non-profit staffs to for-profit galleries. Sotheby's and Gagosian have pilfered curators to their stables because they add not just selling skills but quality content for ever-more sophisticated buyers. (An interesting reversal of the retail marketplace, where the consumer does all the work, clerks simply ring up sales.) This hiring makes perfect sense, even in this down market. And these curators who make the leap get bigger salaries, surely understandable in this badly-paid field.

(An aside: when I went to my IKT conference in Montreal two years ago, Louise Neri, formerly of Parkett magazine, was a last-minute addition on the panel about art and money--yes, the Europeans are just now grappling with this age-old American conundrum. Neri had just taken the job of publications editor for Gagosian gallery. The mostly-European group was hostile, one museum director saying to her "I pity you" for going to the dark side--I sure pitied her at that moment! With the American model of funding seeping into European governments, I fear my colleagues abroad will be struggling for funds right along with us soon enough.)

What is a bigger issue for me is when a museum hires a lackluster for-profit person. Why squander public good will if the benefit doesn't outweigh the risk? The general public is already suspicious of institutions receiving public monies, why give them anything more to complain about? These former dealers should be able to secure loans or donations to the collection, should know where good works are sequestered away for unique exhibitions and scholarship, they should be able to raise money for their museums (donations to auctions, for example) or their own projects when there is a cross-over of interest with collectors. Museum boards should keep a slightly different scorecard for such formerly for-profit staff, who are surely used to sales goals.

The standards for curatorial ethics are clear. Deitch has promised he will only sell from his substantial collection when he needs to supplement his salary, but in any case, how Deitch executes the ideas listed above will tell us how much is is able to bridge the ever-narrowing gap between commercial practice and museum ethics.

Everyone will be watching Deitch's moves. I am eager to see what MoCA will do now, and how some of our vigilant journalists will continue to hold the field's toes to the fire.

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