Going Deitch

Andrew Berardini at a MoCA press conference for Jeffrey Deitch

Los Angeles

Left: Paul Schimmel, chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Right: Jeffrey Deitch, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.

THIS MORNING, several dozen reporters huddled and gossiped at a crowded press conference held in the lobby (the Eli and Edythe L. Broad Reception Hall, to be precise) of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art’s flagship California Plaza venue. The reporters and a smattering of others were there to “welcome” Jeffrey Deitch, the museum’s first director since the embattled Jeremy Strick resigned during the fallout over MoCA’s dissolute finances in 2008. There had been some attempts, reported on Facebook, to assemble a group of “concerned members of the community” outside the museum who would make their (presumably contrary) opinions known, but there was no visible sign of protest when I arrived a little before the conference’s official start time of 10:30 AM. Still, the mere inkling of popular remonstration underscored the widespread controversy surrounding the appointment of one of New York’s leading art dealers to one of the world’s top museum positions.

Most of the expected faces were there: MoCA’s curators (excepting Alma Ruiz), a few of the trustees (no signs of any artists, though)—several of whom chatted excitedly about the prior night’s celebratory dinner at Spago. Curator and LAND cofounder Shamim Momin made an appearance as well, paying her respects, perhaps, to one of her more significant early allies.

One could sense the still-palpable relief that MoCA isn’t drowning in debt and also a certain glee at the prospect that Deitch will likely bring in a lot more money—and no one could deny that money was at the heart of this conversation. MoCA cochair Maria Bell kicked off the conference by commending her board’s selection, repeatedly referring to Deitch as an “independent curator,” as though the term itself were some sort of apotropaic charm. I didn’t hear any of the assembled dignitaries refer to him as a “dealer.” Given the number of hats Deitch has worn and that Bell rattled off—editor, critic, curator, adviser, consultant, gallery owner—why not try museum director? She stated (perhaps overmuch) the board’s unanimous decision and noted how “very, very excited” they all were to have him. When Eli Broad, billionaire philanthropist and MoCA white knight, got his turn at the MoCA New lectern, he reiterated his usual chestnuts, noting that MoCA’s recent recovery (largely catalyzed by him) constituted “the greatest institutional turnaround in recent history,” an important save for “the number one contemporary art museum in the number one art center in the world, Los Angeles.”

When they trotted out the impresario in chief himself, he looked more staid and buttoned-up than ever—no small achievement, since I don’t think I’ve ever seen him not in full suit and tie, whether at his gallery or an “art parade” or one of the assorted sordid events he became famous for producing. Wire-rimmed spectacles supplanted his more usual round, colorful glasses, and he sported a newly trimmed hairdo and double-breasted navy suit: the picture of museum sobriety. He kept his face straight the entire conference, repeating by-now familiar phrases (“There’s probably no museum anywhere that’s as loved as MoCA,” he noted, adding that he hoped to continue to build the museum “so that over the next decade it is indisputably the leading contemporary art museum in the world”) and also reemphasized the mantra that Los Angeles, “with its great schools and museums,” will soon be “the world’s art capital.” “Do you think it will be as fun as running a gallery?” one reporter asked. He paused to look up at the questioner: “I hope it’ll be more fun,” he grinned, a shadow of the former trickster crossing his face before he turned to answer the next question.