When art, commercial ties collide

The obvious, already-engaged debate about "Art in the Streets," the show that L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art bills as "the first major U.S. museum exhibition on the history of graffiti and street art," is whether the genre deserves to be certified as museum-quality or decried as vandalism.

But look beneath that surface, and the show at MOCA's Geffen Contemporary also poses questions that have roiled the museum world for the better part of a decade. In planning and executing an exhibition, when is it OK for a nonprofit art museum to forge ties with a profit-seeking art entrepreneur?

Roger Gastman, hired as the show's associate curator, has both ironclad credentials as a historian of street art and a clear commercial interest in it via R. Rock Enterprises, a marketing company he has run for years. Dubbed R. Rock's "dictator" on his business card, Gastman sells his services -- and those of an array of artists with whom he has close connections -- to advertisers interested in generating buzz and sales by hitching their products to the street-art phenomenon.

Affable, with a left arm sleeved with tattoos, a right arm less densely decorated, and a Baltimore Orioles cap atop his shaved head, Gastman has been in the scene since he was 14 -- starting as a spraycan-wielding kid from Bethesda, Md., who found his own way of leaving a mark in our nation's capital. Now 33, he has written more than 20 books, including "Los Angeles Graffiti," "Street World: Urban Art and Culture from Five Continents" (both 2007), and "The History of American Graffiti," which publisher Harper Collins released this month.

His company's website asserts that "RRE can delve into our constantly evolving network of creative professionals to curate the appropriate aesthetic for your campaign.... With a roster of today's hottest creatives.... RRE can shape the visual character of your brand.... shape the aesthetic of your campaign, legitimize your brand and expand your market by reaching out to an artist's fan base."

None of the 17 names on the R. Rock Enterprises website "artist roster" is in the show. But at least four names featured at MOCA have worked with Gastman as their agent or partner. Retna, Revok and Saber are leading L.A. graffiti artists whom he sent on a six-city tour a few years ago; they painted on walls and interacted with audiences while Gastman's client, Boost Mobile, used the opportunity to pitch its wares. Shepard Fairey was Gastman's partner in Swindle, a pop culture magazine that published 19 issues from 2004 to 2009.

That MOCA's director, Jeffrey Deitch, would seek out Gastman is no surprise; Deitch says his name was on many lips as he called around asking his contacts whom he should enlist for the curatorial team. "Art in the Streets" is the first major show with which Deitch, on the job less than a year, aims to put his own stamp on the museum.

It flows naturally from his background as an early ally of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, who in the early 1980s leaped from the ragtag New York City graffiti scene to acclaim in the legit art world. The early returns look good: the museum said Wednesday that attendance was 22,801 for the opening week -- a pace that, if sustained through the Aug. 8 closing, would break the MOCA weekly record of about 16,000 set with its 2002 Andy Warhol retrospective.

Deitch's hiring last year was itself a landmark moment in the debate over whether and how nonprofit art museums should distance themselves from the commercial art world. He didn't have credentials at other museums or in academia, having instead made his name as a leading New York City art dealer, acclaimed for a showman's knack for finding and exploiting convergences between visual art and alternative pop culture.

In curating "Art in the Streets," Deitch says he has trusted Gastman to leave his marketer's hat at the door, applying only his love and understanding of the art form and a desire to see its story told accurately and well.

Big survey shows can take years to organize; Deitch felt his background would allow him to do this one quickly -- but he needed associate curators who could complement his knowledge of the New York scene, with insights into L.A. street art and other developments. To meet deadlines, all needed to be based in Los Angeles.

"If I could have found somebody at USC or UCLA with deep expertise in this, I would have used them," Deitch says. "But it doesn't exist. To get the people with expertise, I had to go to people who had to make their own way as entrepreneurs."

A second associate curator is Aaron Rose, whom Deitch got to know well in the 1990s, when Rose ran the Alleged Gallery, a street art venue in New York City. Rose, an expert on street art allied with the skateboarding and punk rock scenes, comes with museum experience: In 2004-05, he was co-curator of "Beautiful Losers: Contemporary Art and Street Culture," whose stops included San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and the Orange County Museum of Art.

Deitch said he immediately hit it off with Gastman. As the curatorial team set about choosing which artists to include, there was no discussion or setting of ground rules against possible conflicts of interest. It went without saying, Deitch said, that the sole focus would be "doing a great exhibition. These are people of total integrity, who I trust."

Gastman says the question of conflicts didn't enter his mind. He focused solely on winnowing a large list of contenders to the best artists who belong in the show "based on artistic merit alone. Who I worked with didn't influence who's in the show."

Kaylin Feldman, director of the Minneapolis Institute of Art and president of the Assn. of Art Museum Directors, a leading professional group, didn't want to discuss Gastman's work for MOCA, but she said that ethical questions raised by the dance between museums and the commercial art world are much on her membership's minds. At her own museum, she said, the policy statement on conflicts of interest has grown from a single page a few years ago to the present 21.

Should a nonprofit museum host a touring exhibition that's a profit-making venture? The Los Angeles County Museum of Art and several others answered "yes" starting in 2005 when they booked the blockbuster return of King Tut, organized by Anschutz Entertainment Group, whose far-flung businesses include L.A.'s Staples Center.

Should a museum rent out prized Impressionist paintings to a Las Vegas casino? The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, controversially did so in 2004, reportedly earning at least $1 million from the Bellagio by lending some of its Monets. What about turning over your museum to an exhibition loaned by a single well-connected collector, Dakis Joannou, and curated by one of his collection's featured artists, Jeff Koons? New York's New Museum of Contemporary Art earned a barrage of criticism last year from observers who thought its Joannou-Koons show had less to do with art-for-art's-sake than with catering to a wealthy trustee whose art-trove's value stood to gain from the exposure.

The AAMD's written guidelines allow plenty of wiggle room. They say that museum professionals and trustees "must be alert" to potential conflicts of interest, and to any perception that the public trust is being bent to serve private ends. The guidelines warn that "good intentions, being unprovable, are an inadequate defense against later charges of impropriety."

Ultimately, says Feldman, museums engaged with commercial interests have a simple choice: get rid of anything that might be perceived as a conflict or "be completely transparent about it."

Gastman makes no bones that his credential as a co-curator of "Art in the Streets" will burnish his resume for potential business clients.

"This is just a huge portfolio piece for myself. I just have to be ethical about it" by making sure that as curator he sticks solely to the matter at hand: giving museum-goers a fair, true, informative and enjoyable encounter with street art.

In today's contemporary art world, Deitch says, it's impossible to seal off a museum from all potential spinoffs that could improve somebody's bottom line. Even the standard practice of borrowing works from private owners -- including art dealers -- brings potential for commercial exploitation; for the lender, a museum exhibition can showcase pieces before they're sold, with their value presumably enhanced by the elite exposure.

"The reality is, everything is complex and mixed, and nothing is pure," Deitch says. "The rules are that you need a team with great personal integrity, people who are dedicated. It's about character."

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mike.boehm.@latimes.com

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