What if Jeffrey Deitch and MOCA Had Made it Work?
The official announcement that the Museum of Contemporary Art's director Jeffrey Deitch would step down only arrived at 3:30 p.m. yesterday, nearly two days after L.A. Weekly's Dennis Romero reported the resignation's imminence and one day after editorials on Deitch's tenure began appearing on arts websites and in national papers. Already, the news seemed practically passé, maybe because it caught so few off guard.
Deitch, a former New York dealer with a Harvard MBA, had signed a five-year contract with the museum in 2010, but the job was more than mired from the start. Financial roadblocks, staff guttings, the firing of the museum's distinguished chief curator, dramatic resignations of board members, shows that almost imploded or weathered intense critical heat before even opening: these were unsubtle signs that it wasn't working out. "It was always only a question of when, never if," wrote New York Magazine critic Jerry Saltz of Deitch's resignation in blog post Tuesday night. "Few are surprised at the outcome," wrote LA Times critic Christopher Knight in an essay published yesterday morning.
But when Deitch leaves the museum and, if speculation holds, exchanges his Spanish Revival Los Feliz home for an apartment on New York's Eastside, it won't have been a triumph for anyone involved.
"I've always thought that the life that goes on around art is really something to be embraced," said Deitch when he guested on the arts podcast Bad at Sports in 2010. A dealer who first got his bearings in 1970s New York, he hung around the Warhol Factory crowd, art advised for Citibank, opened his space Deitch Projects in Soho in 1996 and then started an annual art parade that marched down Grand Street. He had interviewed artist Chloe Sevigny for Paper magazine the same year he had done an interview for the Smithsonian's Oral Art History project -- he didn't over-dwell on distinctions between scenes and ideas.
When MOCA benefactor and lifetime trustee Eli Broad and MOCA board co-chair Maria Bell introduced him as the new director at a press conference in January 2010, the board seemed to hope he'd bring that mesh of cool and smart to the museum -- and to assume that his MBA plus corporate work plus success as a private dealer would be enough to help him revitalize the financial devastated institution.
"Los Angeles has a remarkable, young audience who responds to art in a fresh way and wants to get involved," Deitch said at the time. By "young audience" he didn't mean the 20-somethings graduating from SoCal art schools, a demographic that didn't need Deitch to get it to MOCA. He more meant a graffiti-savvy, Vice magazine-reading demographic. Supporters of his appointment hoped that he would change everything.
And wouldn't it have been great if he had?
Courtesy of the artist Harmony Korine's Caput (2011) featuring James Franco and Eddie Peel, part of Franco's "Rebel" show at MOCA
Right away, his presence was felt in the programming -- his directorial role would have clear curatorial ramifications. There was the 2010 retrospective of Dennis Hopper, the actor and early L.A. art scenester who collected art of his contemporaries (Ed Ruscha, Wallace Berman) while photographing them and making paintings and sculptures of his own. Hopper, who died right before the show opened, was something of a hack, but a show that acknowledged that and maybe gave a glimpse of the art he mimicked and bought could have felt historically daring. Instead, it felt myopic.
In 2011 came the "Art in the Streets" show, guest curated by Aaron Rose and Roger Gastman. It was visually spectacular from the moment you walked in, with immersive installations, wall-drawings and back alleys rebuilt inside MOCA Geffen building and its attendance broke records. But there wasn't enough acknowledgement in the show of the difference between the sort of culturally hyped street art co-opted by the mainstream and the villainized graffiti of previous eras, or of why certain artists were in while others weren't. James Franco's offsite 2012 re-imagining of Rebel Without a Cause at JF Chen on Highland, where facsimiles of bungalows from the Chateau Marmont had red paint smeared around them like blood, felt slapdash and sensationalistic.
Then when the massive, scholarly, long-planned Land Art show was delayed and "Transmission L.A.," a quickly planned show curated by Mike D. of the Beastie Boys in weird collaboration with Mercedes Benz (it's not a fundraiser, MOCA staff emphasized), popped up for a few weeks instead, concern among those who wanted art to be taken and treated seriously rose.
Getty Images for MOCA A human centerpiece at the "Artist Life Manifesto" directed by Marina Abramovic for the MOCA Gala
The problem wasn't the coffee bar installed in the museum and a fancy lit car in a gallery that now functioned as a Mercedes showroom -- it was the fact that it didn't feel like a comment or intelligent inquiry into what it meant when the corporate sponsor becomes the art, and the entertainer becomes the curator. Instead, it felt like art was being subsumed seamlessly into a culture of spectacle and celebrity. This would, of course, frighten those who are drawn to art because it's a sphere of cultural production in which showing the seams has been, in this last century especially, deemed important.
If MOCA had thrived financially during this time, there may have been less frustration with its failed experiments in boundary blurring and more excitement about ventures like MOCAtv, its new YouTube channel (and more talk about the great shows at the Pacific Design Center satellite). This spring, surreal but true reports that LACMA had offered to buy MOCA or that USC and the National Gallery in Washington, DC were considering acquiring the museum surfaced before the board got together and raised $60 million.
Still, the museum floundered. The "New Sculpturalism" exhibition that opened this summer had to be restructured and saved by the last minute curatorial intervention of architect Thom Mayne, and again MOCA's problems overshadowed its successes.
But amidst all this upheaval and inconsistency, culminating in Deitch's announced departure this week, nearly every time I have visited the museum in the past three years, Deitch has been in the galleries, attentively leading someone through. You could have approached him if you wanted to.
In December 2011, a month after MOCA had staged an especially daring and ire-raising iteration of its annual gala, a panel convened at non-profit space LACE to discuss what had happened. Performance artist Marina Abramovic had curated the gala, and most of the table centerpieces were rotating human heads that would lock eyes with guests as they circled. Naked bodies positioned beneath life-sized skeletons rotated around six additional tables. The heads and bodies belonged to unpaid local artists who auditioned. Was this exploitative? Was it provocative in a good way or an irresponsible way, panel participants asked.
Deitch arrived late to the panel, sitting near the back. He listened and unpretentiously answered questions at the end, when asked to speak for MOCA and Abramovic. He was submitting to the debate, not acting like his was in any way above or immune to it, and in that moment, I hoped he would succeed.
"He's not afraid to come down the hill," Bert Green, who then ran his space out of downtown, said the year Deitch took over. While that wasn't enough this time, let's hope he's set a precedent.
Catherine Wagley on Twitter:
Public Spectacle, L.A. Weekly's arts & culture blog, on Twitter: