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.