Jeffrey Deitch has seen the future of American museum audiences. And, he says, they will look a lot different from the old guard at Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art.
“They’re not the people who make a living as artists, art critics or professional art collectors, which is the traditional MOCA audience,” says Deitch, the museum’s colorful and controversial director.
“These are people who hear about a great new film they want to go to. They hear that there’s a terrific new fashion store that’s very cool — they want to go there. They don’t differentiate between these cultural forms.”
This is the kind of talk that has made Deitch, 59, persona non grata in certain circles and divided L.A.'s art community this summer. All four artists on MOCA’s Board of Trustees resigned last month after Deitch prevailed in a two-year struggle of wills with recently ousted chief curator Paul Schimmel. More than 1,500 people signed an online petition calling on the museum to hire a new chief curator — a role Deitch plans to fill himself with help from guest curators.
In recent weeks, four lifetime trustees publicly voiced their displeasure with Deitch’s “celebrity-driven program,” and former UCLA chancellor and onetime MOCA director Charles Young urged Eli Broad, the billionaire philanthropist who is MOCA’s chief sponsor, to get rid of Deitch.
“His tenure is likely to take MOCA into the abyss,” Young wrote in a letter to Broad.
Not so fast, say Deitch’s supporters, who have only recently begun to speak out.
“I feel like he’s shaking the foundation of the castle, and the people who’ve been living quite comfortably in that castle for the last 20 years are nervous about it,” says Aaron Rose, who co-curated “Art in the Streets,” MOCA’s exhibition on the history of graffiti and street art, for Deitch.
“Could it possibly be time to pass the torch to the next?” Rose wrote in “Generation Gap: In Defense of Deitch,” an essay for the Breaks website. “Isn’t this the function of a contemporary art museum?”
Rose, who has been instrumental in supporting the early careers of many well-known artists, explains that he “felt it was important for someone to tell the other side” to counter the “big hate fest” taking place.
Deitch has responded to the uproar mostly with silence. But on a recent Friday afternoon, he agreed to give his side of the story to The Times.
Guiding a visitor through “The Painting Factory: Abstraction After Andy Warhol,” an exhibition he personally organized, Deitch can barely contain his enthusiasm. It’s one of four current shows that he likes to describe as part of the museum’s “world-class program.”
“What we’re doing here now, it’s on the most serious level,” says Deitch, nattily attired in a pale yellow suit and his signature round-frame glasses. “It’s as good as any museum in the country.”
But minutes later, seated in a conference room at MOCA’s Grand Avenue headquarters, Deitch pours out his exasperation over the headline-grabbing events of recent weeks that have thrust him into what Young, in his letter to Broad, called the “four-alarm fire now enveloping MOCA.”
“I’m embattled,” Deitch says in a tone more sorrowful than angry.
“Your average cultured reader, reading the L.A. Times, thinks that I’ve destroyed the museum, that I’ve dismantled all intelligence from the program, that we’re doing nothing serious, that we’re showing, like, celebrity portraits or something, that nobody on the staff gets along with me,” he says. “And that is not what’s happening here.”
Deitch says that since leaving Deitch Projects, his for-profit Manhattan gallery, and taking the helm at the nonprofit museum two summers ago, he has boosted attendance to record levels. He says tens of thousands of new visitors now come to MOCA’s exhibitions.
And he insists that MOCA is getting its shaky financial house in order by keeping spending tightly in line with revenues and rebuilding its endowment after years of fiscal mismanagement that preceded his arrival.
Deitch declines to talk on the record about Schimmel, who has not spoken publicly since leaving MOCA. More than once, he checks himself as he starts to talk about the falling out.
What seems to bother Deitch most are complaints that he has courted celebrity sizzle and populist appeal at the expense of serious scholarship. His critics have cited not only “Art in the Streets” but also a show devoted to art from the late actor Dennis Hopper, and a multimedia meta-project in which actor James Franco paid deconstructionist tribute to “Rebel Without a Cause.”
“It’s a wrong [idea] that in order to be important you’ve got to be deadly serious and academic,” Deitch says. “ ‘Art in the Streets’ was serious art history.”
Deitch stresses that his tenure has also included exhibitions devoted to esoteric painter-sculptor Cy Twombly, iconoclastic filmmaker-author Kenneth Anger and Chinese contemporary artist Cai Guo-Qiang.
He points to a thick, shiny silver catalog of the “Painting Factory” exhibition that rests on the conference room table. “Open it,” Deitch urges.
“How can people talk about the lack of seriousness?” he asks. “This is the heaviest book on new abstract painting that’s been published in a long time.”
He reaches for another volume from the shelves.
“This is one of my good efforts, OK? This is the definitive book on Keith Haring,” he continues. “I never had to go to a newspaper and say, ‘But please, don’t you see my book is serious?’ The books, they were well-reviewed, they won prizes. This is crazy for me.”
Deitch, like Rose, believes that a generational shift is opening new directions for contemporary art museums. He wants MOCA to be at the intersection of “these giant cultural trends that span innovation in art, music, fashion” and often bubble up from underground subcultures.
A great example of this, he says, is MOCA’s upcoming exhibition on disco. The blogosphere erupted with ridicule when word of the show leaked. But Deitch counters that it will be a scholarly investigation of disco’s overlap with such era-defining phenomena as the emergence of gay culture from the margins and the rise of hip-hop as a dominant pop-culture aesthetic. Such programming, he says, is helping MOCA reach a new, more diverse audience.
Deitch, says L.A. artist Shepard Fairey in an email, “has an especially astute understanding of the inter-connected nature of high and low art culture. When I say low art, I don’t mean inferior, I mean street-level things like graffiti, fashion, and music that inspire fearless youthful creativity and at their best are equal in rigor to any studio practice.” Most famous for his Obama “Hope” posters, Fairey and his design firm, Studio One, have been contracted by MOCA to create a graphic identity for the museum.
Rose points out that other museums are adopting strategies similar to MOCA’s to entice younger crowds. Electronica DJ Moby recently performed at an Annenberg Space for Photography show on rock ‘n’ roll imagery. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art drew large numbers of young, first-time visitors with its recent Tim Burton exhibition. The Hammer Museum attracted millennials with its Also I Like to Rock concert series.
“You see this all the time, with the replacement of CEOs, with an old guard stepping down and bringing in a young guard to keep something relevant,” Rose says.
Deitch acknowledges that tensions arose between him and some MOCA staffers as soon as he arrived in L.A. “Certain individuals did not want me here,” he says, “and have been relentless in painting me in a negative light.”
Critics still wonder how Deitch will be able to shoulder more curatorial duties in addition to his fundraising responsibilities. And they have raised concerns about Broad’s growing influence over the museum.
Lenore S. Greenberg, a MOCA life trustee, says the museum’s problems stem from Deitch’s programming decisions as well as new board members who “are not familiar with what their responsibilities are.”
She adds, “The board is dysfunctional, and I don’t think the director is functional either.”
Deitch bristles at what he calls the bias that he came to L.A. “as a craven businessman, as a pawn of Eli Broad to help him on his takeover” of MOCA. The trustees who have spoken against him, he says, are “just really misinformed about what’s going on here.”
Deitch says that two “significant’ new trustees will join the board within days, and he intends to recruit new artists to the board to replace Ed Ruscha, Catherine Opie, Barbara Kruger and John Baldessari. The core of his board and staff, he declares, is now fully behind him.
“I’m very eager to get beyond that and talk about our exhibitions and programs,” he said. “My goal is to just really get back to our business and not prolong this.”
Times staff writer Mike Boehm contributed to this report.