Reporter’s notebook: More on MOCA, Jeffrey Deitch and what’s ahead

This article was originally on a blog post platform and may be missing photos, graphics or links. See About archive blog posts.

Some notes and bits on the advent of Jeffrey Deitch as the next director of L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art:

Although MOCA needs Deitch to be, first and foremost, a successful fundraiser — having learned the hard way during the last decade what the consequences of falling short can be — he aims to be an idea man when it comes to exhibitions, including curating some shows.


“Will I do exhibitions myself? The answer is yes ... from time to time. Not on a constant level.” In some cases, Deitch says, he’ll initiate ideas and leave the execution to the museum’s curators. But he’s aiming for “a few projects I might do on my own.”

Paul Schimmel, MOCA’s longtime chief curator, said it’s not unusual for a museum director to come in with specific ideas for shows. “Visual Music,” a 2005 exhibition examining the relationship between sight and sound in art, was an idea that MOCA’s previous director, Jeremy Strick, brought with him from the Art Institute of Chicago when he arrived in 1999, Schimmel said. With Deitch, “I would be surprised given his curatorial background if he would not be interested” in being hands-on with some exhibitions.

Deitch’s arrival could mean that L.A. gains not only a museum director, but also an art-world answer to the Tournament of Roses. From 2005 to 2007, his gallery, Deitch Projects, put on an annual, end-of-summer Art Parade in Manhattan’s SoHo district, featuring bands, dancers and lots of prankish conceptualism. The 2008 running was rained out, and a 2009 sequel didn’t happen. For MOCA, Deitch says, “the art parade is not our first priority, but it’s fun to do.”

Maybe Lady Gaga can be the grand-mistress and march in the Frank Gehry-designed headgear she wore for her performance at MOCA’s 30th anniversary gala in November.

MOCA’s board members probably won’t mind if the Deitch regime causes the same kinds of problems the newly named director said he encountered in his only previous museum job, as a curator during the mid-1970s at the DeCordova Museum, a small institution in what its website describes as “idyllic Lincoln, Massachusetts. ... Bring a picnic and make a day of it!”

“The first show I did brought in too much traffic, and people complained to the mayor about, ‘What were all these cars doing coming into town?’ ’’ Deitch recalled.

Since Deitch clearly is a wealthy man, does he need to kick in a substantial donation to MOCA as a starting point for establishing his credibility as a fundraiser with the folks he’ll be hitting up for large sums?

For example, then-Mayor Richard Riordan and Eli Broad each anted up $5 million of their own money during the 1990s to show they were serious about resuscitating the stalled Walt Disney Concert Hall. (Broad subsequently upped his gift to $10 million).

Although a cash donation is “certainly possible,” Deitch said, his contribution is in taking the job. “I think people are aware that I’ve made a significant sacrifice” in taking the MOCA directorship — both in lost income and the potential costs of closing his business while still on the hook for long-term leases. “I’m not doing this to enrich myself. If that was my intent, I would have stayed in business. I’m giving up something tremendous ... a thriving business.”

Deitch isn’t saying what he’ll earn at MOCA, although that will become public information when the museum files its federal tax statement for the 2010-11 fiscal year — probably sometime in 2012. David Johnson, co-chair of MOCA’s board, said Deitch’s deal is “more or less comparable” to that of his predecessor, Strick, although each contract has different financial provisions. In 2007-08 — his last full year as MOCA’s director before he took the fall in December 2008 for the museum’s financial distress — Strick earned $477,000 plus $18,000 in deferred pay and benefits.

Strick, who now runs the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, was upbeat Monday after word had come that Deitch would be his successor. “It’s an exciting appointment. It’s great news for MOCA and Los Angeles. He’s played the role of cultural impresario, with his fingers always on the pulse of what’s new and interesting.” As for Deitch’s prospects for overcoming the difficulties Strick faced on the fund-raising front, the former MOCA director said “it’s a huge part of the job” and the “whole range of national and international contacts [Deitch] can draw on could make him very successful. One of the most essential attributes is your knowledge and passion for the work you’re collecting and showing, and Jeffrey has that to an amazing degree.”

As Deitch’s tenure beckons (he starts June 1), Angelenos need not worry that MOCA is setting its sights too low. In the news conference at the museum on Tuesday introducing the new director, the museum’s uber-benefactor, Eli Broad, said the mission now was to “make sure the world understands MOCA is the No. 1 contemporary art museum in the world and Los Angeles is the contemporary art center of the world. That’s a tall order.”

Johnson, the board’s co-chair, put the mission this way: “Transform MOCA into the defining museum of the century.”

After that buildup, Deitch didn’t demur: “We have great momentum here. I hope I am able to work with that energy to continue to build MOCA over the next decade so it is indisputably the leading contemporary art museum in the world.”

While others dream of world domination, Charles Young, the former UCLA chancellor who was brought out of retirement to become MOCA’s chief executive a year ago with the mandate of stabilizing its finances, says there are some more mundane tasks at hand.

With 4 1/2 months left on the job, Young said, he’ll be trying to raise some money to ensure that the museum can catch up on deferred recordkeeping and database cataloging involving its 6,000-piece collection. He’s also trying to shore up funding for educational programs that “we’ve had to deal with on a hand-to-mouth basis.”

Meanwhile, Young says, MOCA has identified about $25 million worth of renovations needed at the Geffen Contemporary, among them an upgrade of the climate-control systems and improving “visitor amenities” such as the museum store and restrooms. Also, he said, “we’re concerned about the roof and security.” It’s not that art is in danger of being stolen from the Geffen, Young said, but that as it’s currently configured “it’s extremely costly to provide security” for the converted warehouse. Young said MOCA is hiring consultants to help plan a capital campaign to raise the $25 million, plus additional money for the museum’s endowment.

One obvious target for that campaign is the entertainment mogul and art collector who has his name on the building, having given $5 million during a 1990s endowment drive that led to the name being changed to the Geffen Contemporary from the Temporary Contemporary. When the Grand Avenue museum opened, the “temporary” quarters became a permanent adjunct, because it was a hit with artists and the public.

Said Young: “I’ve talked to David substantially about getting back involved. It’s certainly something we would want.” Deitch won’t need an introduction, because Geffen is a former client.

While Deitch heeds the call of the West, MOCA will be sending a younger administrative talent east. As rumors flew last week that the L.A. museum was on the verge of hiring the New York art dealer as its director, the Guggenheim Foundation announced it had tapped Ari Wiseman, MOCA’s deputy director since 2007, for its own newly created job of deputy director. Wiseman had come up through the ranks at MOCA over the last 8 1/2 years, but at 34, he said, he hadn’t put in a bid for the vacancy at the top. “I’m on the early side of things, so it was important for me to gain other and new experience.’

At the Guggenheim, he’ll take on special projects under foundation director Richard Armstrong, including shaping art acquisition policies for a global network of museums. “There will be responsibilities for all the Guggenheim museums — New York, Bilbao, Venice, Frankfurt and Abu Dhabi,” he said, with the last of those planned but not yet built. Wiseman, who grew up in Pasadena and received degrees from Northwestern University and the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, starts his new job Jan. 19.

-- Mike Boehm


L.A.'s MOCA picks art dealer Jeffrey Deitch as director

Critic’s notebook: MOCA’s complicated choice of a new director

MOCA co-chairs say Deitch’s contract has safeguards against conflicts of interest

Photos, from top: Jeffrey Deitch, Paul Schimmel, Lady Gaga, Eli Broad, Charles Young. Credits: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times; Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times; Ann Johansson / For the Times; Clendenin; Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times