LA MOCA’s Merchant of Bling

Eli Broad and his wife Edye with MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch
Much has been written about the state of LA MOCA, its stumbling exhibition program, and the forced resignation of its chief curator Paul Schimmel. But not enough investigative work has been done to determine how director Jeffrey Deitch’s commercial profile may be affecting his leadership of MOCA.

Director Jeffrey Deitch should disclose the contents of his private collection and his commercial ties to trustees.

We are on a highway to the bottom in America, and in the art world Jeffrey Deitch is leading the charge.

What’s wrong with America? Some say wealth-obsessed, youth-focused, trend-addled materialism and the corrupting influence of money. Yet, those are precisely the colors of the flag under which MOCA sails with Deitch at the helm. More should be demanded of our cultural institutions.

Much has been written about the state of MOCA, its stumbling exhibition program, and the forced resignation of its chief curator Paul Schimmel. But not enough investigative work has been done to determine how director Deitch’s commercial profile may be affecting his leadership of MOCA.

When he accepted the job at MOCA a couple of years ago Deitch said he would continue to sell artwork from his collection to meet financial obligations, at least until he assumed the directorship. More than one dealer has suggested that he continues to deal by proxy. When he was hired, MOCA leaders said the board weighed the conflict-of-interest problem and decided it was a matter of perception and of little concern. But the dealer’s every move should be parsed for its potential self-interest, the contents of his private collection disclosed, and his private art transactions reviewed by the entire board and independent auditors. Why not let the press have a look?

Making Deitch director was letting a fox into the hen house. After all, a museum’s exhibitions and acquisitions are supposed to represent the disinterested choices of experts. Special interests of trustees and patrons can impinge on the purity of a museum’s imprimatur, but having a major art collector and salesman deciding what MOCA exhibits and acquires is a direct conflict of interest that undermines the authority of the institution.  Only transparency can dispel the cloud.

When Deitch was installed the writing was on the wall: he would wait a decorous year or so, then lose Schimmel and bring in a curator or two as his pawns, putting on youth-focused exhibitions aimed at attracting young audiences through meretricious celebrity-focused publicity. The traditional audience would fade away, the youngsters would recognize MOCA’s pandering, and the institution would become an intellectually vacant party palace.

Deitch has always been more about money and bling than substance, and he is showing the same tendencies at MOCA that he did as a gallerist – placing a high premium on big, flashy, decorative and racy confections with a soupcon of counter-cultural political attitude. It’s no surprise that when Christie’s was shopping around the late Liz Taylor’s jewels, renting out department stores around the world, they found only one museum willing to present the selling show. Guess which one. He mounted a graffiti exhibit, co-curated with a commercial agent for the increasingly money-minded and professionalized cadre of “anti-establishment” street artists. Now Deitch has announced a disco show.

If Deitch is permitted to reign at MOCA, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Hammer will hold sway for the future of contemporary art in LA while MOCA becomes a low-brow cauldron of dissipation and hype. MOCA’s core trustees will feel the cheapening of their institution and Deitch, his authority flagging, will quietly resign to resume – or continue? – dealing and collecting.

It’s already begun. Seven of the 40 members of the board – including Jane Nathanson, Steven F. Roth, Gary Cypres and all four artist-members – have jumped ship. They don’t like the “populist” turn espoused by Deitch and by MOCA’s billionaire “life trustee” Eli Broad, the collector who singlehandedly bailed out MOCA from its financial mess with $30 million in gifts and pledges, and is seen as responsible for Deitch’s appointment. Nathanson, a major donor to LA museums, cited as a reason for her departure her lack of confidence in Deitch’s fundraising ability. He hasn’t been able to match the funds needed to draw down available increments from Broad’s pledge. The budget and staff have been sharply trimmed, but MOCA’s finances are not all that rosy.

“The celebrity-driven program that…Deitch promotes is not the answer,” said another four trustees in a letter to the LA Times responding to an op-ed by Broad. (They are Lenore S. Greenberg, Betye Burton, Audrey Irmas and Frederick M. Nicholas.) Artists Catherine Opie and Barbara Kruger said in their joint resignation letter that they are fed up with the art world’s focus on secondary-market sales, attendance figures, and profit-minded “philanthropy.” They want MOCA “to remain the globally respected institution it has become [and] continue its intellectually ambitious and visually compelling exhibition program.” LA artist Ed Ruscha sees the museum “on a course different than I imagined,” and John Baldessari says the disco show may be “a tipping point.”

These board defections represent a massive vote of no-confidence for Deitch and Broad’s policies, one that is causing a public relations crisis that is likely to mount. The museum’s reputation already has become inextricably tied to its embrace of the market through the selection of its director. The discussion has usurped attention from the art itself, turning the museum into an agar dish of art-world conflict of interest.

Deitch is a bellwether of an ill wind in the museum world and American culture generally. Recall that when Thomas Hoving led The Metropolitan Museum of Art in the 1970s his introduction of heavily marketed spectacular blockbuster exhibitions transformed museum culture from a fusty bastion of tweedy historians and connoisseurs into a vibrant destination for popular entertainment, with learning on the side. His successor, Philippe de Montebello, restored the balance, returning the values of scholarship and learning to the fore while preserving the feeling of broad accessibility introduced by Hoving. Deitch threatens to take MOCA down a reverse course, hurtling ever further toward dumbing down content, and with a new overlay of art market shenanigans lurking in the background.

Will the industry and its watchdogs step in to right itself? The Association of Art Museum Directors has not warned MOCA that having a director with a large personal collection of the same category of art that the institution shows and buys is a conflict of interest for both the director and the museum – one made all the less acceptable by the possibility that the director is selling during his tenure. How can Deitch separate himself from the market? And how can MOCA hope to present itself as disinterested from the financial concerns of its leader? (The scenario calls to mind former Vice President Dick Cheney who upon assuming office put his Haliburton shares under a blind trust – he would not manage the money during his tenure – then presided over an administration that greenlighted bid-free multi-billion-dollar contracts for his company in the Middle East wars he helped orchestrate.)

Here’s a question: which MOCA trustees have also been Deitch clients? Does any have outstanding obligations to him, or vice versa? Broad, MOCA’s most powerful supporter, is one of Deitch’s clients. As MOCA’s life trustee and provider of financial life support, Broad was instrumental in shepherding Deitch into the directorship. What has Deitch sold to Broad and are their accounts settled? Will Broad be acquiring works from Deitch’s holdings to fill out the Broad museum going up across Grand Avenue from MOCA? Both men are collectors, friends and promoters of Jeff Koons. If MOCA exhibits Koons would it not appear that Deitch, the leader of the nonprofit, was using his post to reinforce the value of sales he had made to MOCA’s funder Broad?

Nonprofit laws forbid behavior by an institution that might be construed as benefiting trustees. Museums and other charities enjoy tax exemption because they serve the public good and not individuals. If MOCA exhibits works or artists that Deitch has sold to MOCA trustees, or that he has in his private collection, that could threaten the nonprofit’s tax-exempt status, or at least cause the California State Attorney General, whose office oversees charities in the state, to investigate the nature of MOCA’s activities to insure that conflicts of interest are properly resolved and that trustees of MOCA are not illicitly profiting from the nonprofit’s activities.

Who is hurt by all this winking collusion? Wealthy collectors are happy to have their property touted in a museum. The dealer/director is happy to wield the power to do so. Maybe the beneficiaries of backroom deals will feel obliged to donate art or money to the museum. MOCA could balance its books, hire more staff, acquire more art, maybe increase salaries, fix up its building, possibly expand and put its closeted collection on view. They could even lower the price of admission. But what is a good metric for nonprofit success? Certainly not to enrich private stakeholders. Even attendance is not a good measure. Give away booze and show porn or pop stars and you’ll get a big audience. Obviously that’s not the primary goal.

The Museum of Contemporary Art exists to educate, edify, illuminate, inspire and to provide aesthetic enjoyment. It exists to collect, preserve, exhibit and interpret those objects that disinterested experts deem most exemplary. It should provide a chronicle of changing modes of visual expression and historical context for the art of our time. We don’t need more entertainment palaces filled with kitsch and empty of intelligence.

Deitch is taking MOCA for a stroll down the wrong path. He should step down now before the institution loses its way.

Jason Edward Kaufman

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18 Responses

  1. The reason that the AAMD has not censured Deitch is because they already have by denying him membership. MOCA has the only major museum director not accredited by this group.

  2. Where have you been? We need good writers who feel art to write more, not leave the field to self hyping hacks like TG and his BFF CK.

    I find this all hilarious, it was inevitable. Contempt-orary art is of the academies, cutting itself off from humanity long ago. It tries to make its patrons feel superior, and artistes, their lap dogs, are always looking for handouts and seeking some rich dude to bail them out. Instead of making something relevant to HUMAN culture.

    True creative art binds US together, it doesnt split for market share. And this is all about investment and parties. Always has been, always will be. They just got tired of the drab and pseudo intellectual Baldessari(dr Zaius the garden gnome, preConceptualists and subMinimalism) types, and going straight for true Hollywood society page shenanigans.

    Its all the same thing, irrelevant, and so, castrated and not a threat. True creative art is a guard dogg. These are purse puppies.

    We need to rebuild from the foundations of human art, of mind, body and yes, Soul, as One. Not “fundamentalism”, which is of Western materialistic illusionism and self absorbed control.
    http://dfimagery.blogspot.com/

  3. And jason, jason, jason. DIS-interested “experts”? They are all in on it, their livelihoods connected to the illusion of power, of control, of an “elite’.

    It’s all a lie, and few great artists have ever graduated from an academy, those who did took years to get it out of their system. Art is of life, of US, not me, the lie of selfish expression being art the key to teaching drivel. Standard-ized mediocrity.

    After all these hundreds of millions of dollars spent(mostly out of the pockets of parents for their “brilliant’ children, feeding the museo/academic/gallery complex buying worthless, skilless bought pieces of paper), out off all this 50 years of far more art students and money than in all time combined, WHAT do WE have to show for it? This is truly better than Modern art from Cezanne to Diebenkorn, all self taught from life?
    LMAO!

  4. The resignations of 4 artists from the Board of Directors does not signal the death of LAMOMA.

    There are American artists who are quite capable of making significant contributions to the goals of LAMOMA.

    Rest assured that other artists will surface and make equally valuable contributions to the success of LAMOCA.

  5. Yes, get it right. this is NOT Modern art, it is the very opposite and enemy actually. Its contempt art, as it doesnt care about humanity, only its own pathetic selfish expression, which has never been art. Creating things that are expressIVE of who WE are is arts role in human culture. It is NOT culture itself.
    And has failed miserably for five decades.

  6. Thank you for writing this article and draw the line. I wish this will be a wake up call for other museums around the world and that decency must be a requirement to be a museum director.

  7. Jason,

    An excellent article, with the guts to call it like it is. As a painter and a blogger, I occasionally write about art issues on my blog site at The Chronicle Review (see above). When Deitch was hired, I am proud to say, I wrote that it was a disaster. I was hardly the only one–how hard was it to see, back then, what it would lead to?

    http://chronicle.com/blogs/brainstorm/la-mocas-new-currency-the-deitch-mark/20464

    I think the damage at this point is so severe that there’s no obvious way toward recovery other than to get rid of Deitch. Alas, there’s no way to get rid of Deitch without Broad leaving. Hence there’s no recovery in sight.

    Can’t wait for the the gala opening of Jeff Koons’ show. Should be a great show. After all, Koons is Deitch’s personal pet.

    Laurie

  8. Very smart, bold, and great timing, coinciding with Roberta Smith’s lament re MOCA in NYTimes today 7/23/12. I feel for Deitch; he’s a businessman turned art dealer who doesn’t know the difference between scholarship and salesmanship nor recognizes that many look to art for a respite from entertainment, not an extension of it. He’s in over his head and should exit before the sharks butcher him, the trustees yank him, or the whole thing goes under: an unfortunate situation for all concerned.

  9. Dear Jason, Thanks for the (sound) perspective on the ethical morass that is MoCA (and the art world in general.) Your perspective may lack subtlety, though: Today art museums don’t just evoke Wall St in their conflicts of interest (e.g. MoMA–with its Stella-owning board–mounting so many Stella shows 40 years ago seems worse to me than Hoving’s ersatz pluralism of the same era), they also utilize the methods of the global banking cartel (as with Krens’s leveraging of the Guggenheim Collection to get Bilboa built with OPM–other people’s money) contra the interest of the citizenry mere nations and states (Need I mention the current state of the economy in Spain and the Basque country?) Isn’t it time for a broader critique of late capitalism that starts with the money not ends with it?

    Re MoCA, Does Deitch (or Broad) intend to curate every show now? And wouldn’t this simple solution help: At the Village Voice we art critics were not allowed to write about any artist if we owned a major work by her, acknowledging the potential (monetary) value of publicity inherent in art discourse (or at MoCA read: presentation). The occasional exception was made but it resulted in transparency and put the onus of responsibility on the writer (for MoCA read: curator, board member, director). Thanks for listening. Robert

  10. @Robert – thanks for your comment. Is there anything subtle about taking on late capitalism in an op-ed about a museum director? My point is not simply that MOCA at present is an art-world example of the same revolving door through which Wall Streeters and regulators pass, but that this is a particularly glaring example of conflict of interest, one the likes of which we have not yet seen (even in the days of Bill Rubin and his brother/dealer and Frank Stella). Your solution is fine, but it would penalize both the living artists in Deitch’s collection, and the museum public that may benefit from seeing some of them. – Jason

  11. Okay let’s be more specific. I didn’t intend to suggest that if a single member of the board, or the director or a curator owned an artist’s work, s/he shouldn’t be given a show. But this is mere tinkering, perhaps an example of the distraction of focusing on symptoms rather than causes. Yes, let’s invoke late capitalism or, better, the “socialism” of more potential civic involvement in MoCA’s affairs. (Remember that LACMA’s Michael Govan, head of a public institution has proposed the merger of LACMA and MoCA, but displaced fealty to Broad for rescuing Disney Hall eons ago has apparently given Broad a lifetime free pass in LA. But don’t count out state attorney general Kamala Harris, should she like a real challenge now that she’s facilitated the first US homeowners bill of rights.)

    In any case, I assert that we are reaching a tipping point: the now-conventional, if ever bolder, Wall Street-style conflict of interest that results in the increased monetary value of an individual’s art holdings—whether a trustee or Dietch’s—is small potatoes alongside the transfer of the entire collection to an entity controlled by Broad. (The power Broad would assume is unthinkable in New York, Chicago or San Francisco and positively shameful for a city of Los Angeles’ size and wealth.) To ignore the possibility of Broad’s takeover is both to be unaware of the similar circumstances of Norton Simon’s transformation of the Pasadena Museum into the Norton Simon Museum, and to assume that the MOCA board could have the guts to fire Deitch (or any of Broad’s hand-picked subordinates) without replacing Broad’s contribution of tens of millions to “rescue” MoCA. Which past actions tell us they won’t do they not? (BTW, Broad’s current protestations of long-time interest in MoCA do not jibe with his history of paltry monetary giving until the emergence of the recent “crisis.”) Yes, reality bites; keep following the money.

  12. @Robert I’m not unaware of the similarities. No one in L.A. or elsewhere who follows the goings on the city’s art world is unaware of the potential of Broad taking over MOCA, whatever that would mean. I remember Knight’s article likening Broad to Simon, and have read that Broad claims Simon as a role model. When I interviewed Broad on the announcement of his Broad Art Foundation museum plans for Grand Avenue, I asked him if there might be a tunnel connecting his museum to MOCA! Of course not, he said. He wanted MOCA to remain an independent museum, he said, which is why he pledged $30 million. Well, I agree with you and others in LA that there is a real possibility of Broad exerting more influence if he keeps dealer-director-chief curator Deitch on board demeaning the institution with p.r. stunts and insider trading paid for by his art business client(s). MOCA’s board, which includes several billionaires, the County and the State of California might consider handing the multi-billion-dollar collection to Broad to combine with his foundation museum. They’d require the new institution to adopt bylaws sharing governance among a board of individuals representing not only his foundation, but the City, State and the art community – persons not appointed by Broad who would still exert control by his hand on the pursestrings. But I believe officials would sooner place a failing MOCA under the care of LACMA or a university that could provide ongoing support. We’re not there yet. We’ll have to see where the money leads. – Jason

  13. “If MOCA exhibits Koons would it not appear that Deitch, the leader of the nonprofit, was using his post to reinforce the value of sales he had made to MOCA’s funder Broad?”

    Not if, but soon, and apparently in a big way. In his letter of self-defense (available online), Deitch announces upcoming MOCA exhibitions, including solo shows of the work of Taryn Simon, Mark Bradford, Urs Fischer and Jeff Koons.

  14. And it now appears (reported on your very site today) that MOCA has cancelled Schimmel’s major Richard Hamilton exhibition, one of the most anticipated shows of the next few years.

  15. Jason, you nailed it. Loved your take on ditch. There used to be a grocery super market in queens, ny. Is he a scion of that family? If so, how perfect that he is selling stuff no wort much

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Jason Edward Kaufman is an art historian and critic with expertise in museums and the international art world.

A complete list of past articles is available here.

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