Jeffrey Deitch stepped into a gallery at the Museum of Contemporary Art on Monday where a photographer was set to take his portrait in front of a painting in the shape of a bull’s-eye by Kenneth Noland.
But Deitch, 57, had another idea for a backdrop: He suggested “A Lot to Like,” James Rosenquist’s massive 1962 canvas that occupied another wall in the gallery.
“Jim’s a friend,” Deitch said.
The offhand remark illustrates the assets and potential drawbacks that New Yorker Deitch, appointed Monday as MOCA’s new director, brings to his new role in Los Angeles and the larger art world.
An advisor to heavyweight art collectors around the world, an active collector himself and a gallery owner who helped shape the careers of groundbreaking late-20th century artists, he now takes on the leadership of an institution many regard as the world’s leading museum dedicated to post-World War II art, one that nearly foundered financially less than two years ago.
MOCA’s board of directors called the appointment of Deitch, one of the few gallery owners who has moved into the directorship of a museum, a bold move, and clearly believes his business savvy and connections will serve him well in the job. Others see the potential for conflicts of interest, with the reputation of the museum on the line.
MOCA already has made enough of the wrong kinds of headlines: a 2008 financial crisis in which overspending ate up its endowment and left the museum so vulnerable that there were fears it wouldn’t survive as an independent institution.
That’s why Deitch might want to avoid being photographed in a bull’s-eye: He’s already assured of being a target for minute scrutiny.
Deitch won’t officially assume his new job until June 1, when his five-year contract begins. Between now and then, he plans to get out of the art business and lay the groundwork for making his connections benefit MOCA.
In his first year, he hopes to bring in donations that will take MOCA from what he sees as a post-crisis “austerity budget” of $15.5 million, to the $18-million-plus budget he thinks it needs to mount exhibitions that will maintain its reputation.
After three years, he hopes to be running a museum that’s financially stable, has done “some superb exhibitions,” reaped a “steady increase in attendance,” and is ready for “major initiatives” both in programming and a long hoped-for expansion, perhaps by renovating and enlarging the Geffen Contemporary building in Little Tokyo that complements the museum on Grand Avenue.
Interviewed in the library of MOCA’s executive offices, Deitch said one of the best cards he holds is his long-standing connections with leading art collectors around the world: “Effective fund-raising is based on relationships.”
Deitch said he’ll give up his New York City gallery, Deitch Projects, possibly transferring parts of the business to some of his current employees. He expects to take a financial hit, partly from the earnings he’ll forgo, and partly from the leases he may have to eat on the largest of his three gallery buildings and on other sites.
“I’m just going to stop all commercial activity. The gallery will be over,” Deitch said, as will his work as an art consultant to collectors.
He also will resign from the committee that rules on which works purported to be by Jean-Michel Basquiat are genuine. Deitch (pronounced DIE-tch) was a close friend of the artist, who died in 1987.
Deitch says he aims to cut back, but not discontinue, the acquisition of art for his personal collection, which he says includes about 50 major works, in keeping with his wish to own a major piece by every artist he’s worked with closely.
In the future, he says he will acquire less expensive work by less established artists, while complying with museum-world ethical guidelines designed to ensure that a director puts the museum’s interests first and doesn’t use the position for personal enrichment.
That, Deitch said, would include giving MOCA the right of first refusal on any piece he might want to buy.
“I have to exercise good judgment and be appropriate,” he said. “Would I arrange an exhibition that features a major work I’m thinking of selling? Absolutely not, because that’s not appropriate.”
Deitch says he can handle the scrutiny that comes with being the first person in memory to make the transition from being a successful art dealer to running a major nonprofit American art museum.
“Lots of people are going to be concerned and looking, and all their comments are important,” he said. “What I hope is I’ll eventually be seen as an actual individual, not as some abstraction -- an art dealer running a museum.”
Deitch majored in art at Wesleyan University, not far from his hometown of Hartford, Conn., where his family owned a heating oil business. He then earned a master’s in business administration from Harvard, but he always had his heart set on being part of the art world. After working as a curator of the DeCordova Museum, a small institution in Lincoln, Mass., he cast his lot with the commercial art world.
In 1979, Deitch launched an art advisory service for clients of Citibank. He went on to become an independent dealer, championing Basquiat, Keith Haring and Jeff Koons, among others. In 1996 he launched Deitch Projects, which has won praise for putting on adventurous shows of less-commercial genres such as street art and performance art, and drawing in young audiences by forging connections between the art and underground music scene.
Running MOCA hadn’t occurred to him until last October, when he was contacted by the executive search firm working for the museum.
“I was very intrigued, but I didn’t take it very seriously” until December, when he started speaking to members of the museum board’s search committee and sensing how passionate they were about the museum and its future.
“They were so enthusiastic, and I then took on some of the same enthusiasm,” he said.
Deitch said he called his accountant to find out what it would cost him to take the job. After running the numbers, he said, “I thought I might have to reconsider. But this is what I’ve always wanted to do.”
His contract includes a “relatively modest” housing allowance, he said. He wouldn’t say what his compensation package will be -- except that it will be substantially less than he’s been accustomed to as an art dealer.
Part of Deitch’s legend among members of the international art scene has been his spartan living conditions -- a small Manhattan apartment with no art on display so he had nothing to worry about keeping secure while jetting around the world. Now he’s thinking it would be appropriate to settle into a proper home in L.A., where he can entertain visitors and show them some art.