The Merchant of Cool: Jeffrey Deitch’s MOCA Resigns Reveals Racial Bias

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The Merchant of Cool Jeffrey Deitch's MOCA Resigns Reveals Racial Bias

The geeky looking Jeffrey Deicht is in trouble, again? With two years remaining on his five-year contract, Jeffrey Deicht announced his resignation as the director of Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA).

Being the first-ever gallerist to run a museum, he was pressed to prove himself as an authority on art – in the institutional realm, and subsequently, became a trial case study of how private art dealing can co-mingle with public arts exhibition. Implicit to this role, it was Deitch’s task to determine the tension in his new role.


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When he was elected by a unanimous vote from the museum’s board of trustees in January 2010, Deitch was met with mixed reviews – doubt mixed with suspicion – in response to his mixed background as a private art dealer and art adviser who knew the business of art, but not the history of it. An anonymous source from a New York Times article didn’t mince words, “He is a smart operator, a good dresser, and knows how to deal with art collectors. Is that enough to get by as director of MOCA?” Clearly, this anonymous source meant, smooth operator, but semantics aside, the criticism underscores the prejudices of institutionalized art that preclude capitalizing on art’s public appeal and had already presumed Deitch a failure for thinking he could pioneer a new union between private collections and public interest.

A master’s from Harvard Business School is considered impressive among some, but not among the art pack. And his resignation confirms that (damned) degree as the scarlet letter of Deitch’s demise.  At the time, the decision to prioritize paper-chasing over a piece of paper, i.e. an advanced fine arts degree, was more understandable than arts institution figureheads wanted to admit. With a pitiful endowment of $10 million, the MOCA was still languishing from the financial fallout of 2008 and had called upon lifetime trustee Eli Broad for an emergency $30 million bailout.


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Deitch had certainly proven his dedication and patronage to the arts, paying a record $11.55 million in 1989 for Jackson Pollock’s No. 8 1950, a figure that remained the highest price at auction for a work by the artist until Pollock’s Number 19, 1948 realized $58,363,750 just this past May. And in order to abate a potential conflict of interest, Deitch’s move from New York to Los Angeles also required leaving behind Deitch Projects, the SoHo gallery and project space he founded in 2006 that had become known as the career-launchpad for many of the most well-known artists of the past decade.

When asked point-blank by another equally bitchy anonymous source, Deitch responded, “I want to be at MOCA for the same reason I got into art in the first place. I’m someone who believes in art, in artists, and in the ability of art to build a community.” Yea, the C-word, Deitch said it, and he meant it. Unafraid to wield his reputed “cool-kid cachet,” which was suppose to prime the MOCA to resonate with younger art crowds, Deitch had a reformist vision….hindsight is 20/20; the board’s mistake was a case of mistaken identity: Deitch is an aficionado, not an academic.

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Opening the museum’s doors wider than they had ever been before, Deitch integrated the accessibility of celebrity into the museum’s programming –– organizing a retrospective of Dennis Hopper’s art and lassoing THE James Franco into an exhibition, Rebel, last spring. He also played into popular predilection, spearheading Art in the Streets in 2011, which quadrupled attendance from the previous year. (it never ceases to amaze me how people can’t seem to ever get enough graffiti, even in New York where it’s practically become an architectural material itself) But my personal favorite of Deitch’s exhibits, “Fire in the Disco,” doubly served controversy last June, both with its funky subject matter and by developing in the midsts of chief curator Paul Schimmel’s abrupt leave from the institution. Knowing Paul as I do, which is to say, not at all, he must’ve coyly cited, “creative differences.” Schimmel’s departure created a ripple effect within the institution, and soon all four artists on the board – Ed Ruscha, Catherine Opie, John Baldessari, and Barbara Kruger – exited.


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Deitch expects to stay on through the fall to oversee the museum’s $100 million endowment campaign, of which, reportedly, there’s only $25 million left to raise. The search for a new, presumably academia-laden director has begun. And in the meantime, in media res, Deitch is on a search of his own ––for both an apartment and gallery space on the Upper East Side of New York. When one door closes another opens, or in Deitch’s case, maybe it’s a less traditional point of entry, like a window.

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