Art! Who goes there? Now: we do. In the second installment of our fortnightly Sunday art column, Kelsey Keith explains what a Jeffrey Deitch is, and why after tomorrow, the entire art world will be watching his every move.
The piping hot art gossip hellbent on dominating the news cycle for the week ahead: New York übergallerist Jeffrey Deitch is reportedly being ushered in tomorrow as the newest director of Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art. [Monday update: It's official.] This? Gamechanger.
Electing someone like Deitch, whose clout in the commercial art world is manifest, as head of a major non-profit cultural institution like MOCA, is a bold move by the board, who reportedly also considered New Museum director Lisa Phillips and Swede Lars Nittve, formerly of the Tate Modern, London's modern art bulwark and yearly arbiter of Bright Young Things. You may know MOCA as the West Coast museum beleaguered by budget troubles and recent host to a star-studded 30th anniversary party featuring none other then the Ambassador to NoPantsLand Lady Gaga.
Deitch is a jack-of-all-trades on the East Coast contemporary art scene, The Godfather of youthful creatives (Kehinde Wiley, Dash Snow, Tauba Auerbach, Ryan McGinness) with a background in corporate business sense (a Harvard MBA, founder of Citibank's art advisory practice, independent consultant for various well-heeled collectors). He solidified his rep on the downtown arts scene in 1996 with the foundation of Deitch Projects, after running in circles with art world glitterati (Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Julian Schnabel, Francesco Clemente) for twenty years. He is, as New York art critic Jerry Saltz noted, the "consummate insider with credibility and real-world skills," a player who knows how to make money from art.
Why's this such a big deal? MOCA—which only survived complete financial meltdown in 2008 thanks to a $30 million infusion from financier Eli Broad—is making a high-profile gamble by appointing Deitch. No other major museum in the United States has tapped a gallery owner as its resident dictator, a position that traditionally relies on an academic tradition of patronage, politics, and presentation. Can someone so skilled in the market sector of the art world switch horses midstream and solicit donations? Can he be accountable to the needs of the board, museum staff, donors, and public at large? Can he helm an exhibition canon that makes art both accessible for the masses and transcendent to the cognoscenti?!
Here's the thing: it's a Herculean task for anyone. Just ask former director Jeremy Strick, who was ousted in late 2008 after he failed to manage the deflated fund of unrestricted assets and a "broken model" of efficiency. Despite the inevitable chatter leading up to and following MOCA's official announcement at 10:30 PST tomorrow morning, wagging tongues are in agreement that the museum needs to think outside of the box and get creative with its leadership. Deitch—assuming he can offset the managerial headaches of a massive non-profit with his brand of art world connoisseurship— could be just The Godfather for the job. If you spend any time looking at art in your life, this is a name you should know. And here's what you should know about him:
Deitch, The Workaholic
In a New Yorker profile from November 2007, Deitch is quoted describing his all-consuming passion for art: "We decided at the start that the gallery was going to be based on an approach to art, not on a roster of artists. I see it as a platform for creative community—the extension of life into art and art into life." (Which doesn't translate to his personal life, oddly enough, as his apartment, a small two-room pad in a Midtown highrise, "looks about right for a graduate student" and features "no art on the walls, no prints or photographs—nothing.") Since his breakup with partner Laura Grisi in the 1990s, Deitch has rarely dated (at least in the public eye), throwing himself into work instead of a swingin' bachelorhood.
Detich, The Performance Art Appreciator:
He's into it. To rattle off a few, Deitch Projects has helmed:
- The Annual Art Parade (drag queens and pasties-attired artists unleashed on Manhattan)
- A DIY Michel Gondry film set
- A makeshift meth lab
- A wall of rotting bananas courtesy of design guru Stefan Sagmeister
- A two-person wooden pump organ
- Myriad stagings of naked women orchestrated by Vanessa Beecroft
- The infamous Dash Snow/Dan Colen "hamster's nest"
- A medieval banquet hosted by a topless mermaid
- A glam-fueled gallery shitshow with Fischerspooner
An upcoming collaboration with neophyte Warhol James Franco
Deitch, and The Yoko Ono Connection
Deitch, who has been photographed with Yoko Ono [Ed. Yoko fucking Ono. Again?!] on multiple occasions, produced her book Odyssey of A Cockroach and the Wooster Street gallery space hosted her 1998 exhibition Ex It in which she arranged trees growing out of 100 wooden coffins. Deitch also gave Ono the run of the gallery during an off-the-wall performance/installation by Assume Vivid Astro Focus in 2003.
And finally, Deitch Projects Online
Has the most grating background music ever played on the World Wide Web.
Well, gentle readers, why should you give a shit? Here's the short and sweet of it: we've got the don of the New York art juggernaut, who's most likely steering the course of institutionalized contemporary art on the West Coast, effectively erasing the line between commercial and academic art. That's one for the textbooks.
This is 2K10, y'all, and as someone who's ready for an art world rumble that does not concern the New Museum's exhibition policies, I say have at it, MOCA. Hitch your wagon to a star [read: Jeffrey Deitch]; at the very least, it's an exercise in how a tastemaker becomes an Art Star in his own right.
Update: Art metacritic Paddy Johnson of Art Fag City brings up another angle of the Deitch/MOCA brouhaha over email:
"If the rumors are proven true tomorrow, I think Jeffrey Deitch's appointment as MOCA's Director will be great gain for the art world, and a blow to the New York art world. The gallery may show a little too much fashiony-art schlock for my taste but they've also provided a platform for a lot of rising stars through out the years. Cory Arcangel and Jacob Ciocci of Paper Rad were both under-recognized artists when Deitch Projects exhibited their collaboration in 2005—now there are few people in creative fields who don't know their names. The real questions New Yorkers should be asking is what will happen to the gallery. They have three locations, and launch an incredible volume of shows. Deitch is not one of those invisible back room dealers. With him gone, the contemporary gallery landscape in New York is likely to look a lot different."