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What’s Going on With MoCA? A Primer on the Jeffrey Deitch Situation for Art-World Novices

The contemporary art scene seems to me not unlike a soap opera, complete with the people in strange outfits and little-to-no contact with the real world outside their small, insular metropolis. This week, as the world seizes over Weinergate, an entirely different kind of scandal has come to a close at Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art. MoCA had been in dire financial straits for a long time before Jeffrey Deitch, a legendary SoHo gallerist, was handed its reins. Now, two years later, he’s quit, to much fanfare from the people who claimed he’d been gradually ruining the MoCA — and this in spite of the fact that over Deitch’s tenure attendance at the museum has risen somewhat, though it did see a drop last year. Also, in spite of the fact that he stabilized the museum’s finances and was a crackerjack fundraiser.

MOCA museum, Downtown Los Angeles

So what happened?

First, some background on Deitch. He is a longtime art dealer best known to the general public for his discovery of Jeff Koons. If you’ve lived in total ignorance of art up until this moment, you might still recognize Koons as the man who built those enormous balloon animal sculptures. Or as one of the parties to a famous copyright case. The thing about Koons is that he has always been the kind of artist who engages popular culture in his work. Which, some snobs might say, might make him a more “populist” sort of artist.

Deitch has also come to the fore on the wave of money that has consumed the art world, which has made the most successful artists into something not all that distinguishable from celebrities. Coupled with that is a trend towards performance art, in which many big art shows come to look like a Lady Gaga concert — obviously there’s a more refined aesthetic, but you get the idea. And Deitch has, by and large, embraced that trend. “I just love this whole concept of the artist as art,” he said to Calvin Tomkins for a New Yorker profile awhile back. But if your life is an art, and thus living out loud in public your craft, you open yourself up to charges of vulgarity. And in Deitch’s case, that seems to be the problem. As The New York Times diplomatically put it yesterday, he was prone to, “breaking down barriers among art, music, fashion and other creative worlds. In the art scene in LA generally, this apparently meant that folk would find him too open to things like an exhibition of Dennis Hopper’s work or an art show about James Dean curated by James Franco. And if that seems odd for a town so dominated by Hollywood, you could read it as being symptomatic of the art scene in LA traditionally having had to define itself against the Hollywood thing.

Last year, that began to turn into a real management problem for Deitch at MoCA. He had to preside over a layoff, which has never made any new boss popular in the history of new bossdom. But the real crisis hit sometime last July, with the resignation of four prominent artists from the MoCA board: Barbara Kruger, Catherine Opie, Ed Ruscha, and John Baldessari. Kruger and Opie were pretty blunt in their resignation letter: “Parties and galas are OK, but sometimes these things called ‘museums’ have to have things called ‘exhibitions.'” Ouch. The press often enough agreed with observations like that. Even now an art blogger at LA Weekly is sniping about an exhibition from over a year ago that was partially sponsored by Mercedes-Benz. She offers this:

The problem wasn’t the fact a coffee bar installed in the museum [sic] 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.

One follows along pretty easily with that until the last line, mostly because I’m not sure what these “seams” are or how the art shows it. And to be perfectly honest, as one who dabbles but does not spend a lot of time in art museums, I feel like it’s hard to see this as something beyond snobbery unless I’m showed evidence that the corporate sponsorship really did involve curatorial meddling — or that it was actually the case that the Mercedes-Benz logo was slapped on a few artworks.

It’s not that Deitch doesn’t have his defenders. New York magazine’s Jerry Saitz says that Deitch’s “powerful business sense, the very [thing] the museum needed, scared everyone.” And there are those numbers, on the page, to suggest that he’s right. But the paradox of the art world today is how uncomfortable it is with what a rich person’s game it’s become. The people at the top, making the money, don’t care, of course. But the others seem to worry that money in some way tarnishes the purity of their work, in a way that seems rather ahistorical, given how many great artists throughout history have depended on the kindness of patrons. You can have art, and you can have money, but apparently, in more than a few influential eyes, you can’t have both — and so Deitch had to go.

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