PRINT Summer 2010

Jeffrey Deitch

Crowd outside Deitch Projects for the opening of Shepard Fairey’s “May Day,” New York, May 1, 2010. Photo: Delphine Ettinger.

LOOKING BACK AT MY GALLERY during the past fifteen years, I’ve become increasingly aware of how it operated as a private ICA. Most of our programming was not commercial—for instance, the recent Josh Smith show of forty-seven paintings made directly on the wall, which you can’t sell. And, in fact, Deitch Projects was not originally intended to be a gallery. It was inspired by Art & Project in Amsterdam, with the concept being that I would only invite artists who had never shown in New York and who would not just hang new paintings or photographs but instead wanted to create a project for the space. I would provide artists with up to twenty-five thousand dollars in production or travel money and living stipend; if we sold the work, the twenty-five thousand dollars would be reimbursed and we would split the remaining proceeds. If we didn’t sell it, we could be very relaxed. The artist didn’t have to worry. I would just keep an equivalent amount of work for my own collection to cover the investment and production. And so when you add my personal collection to the conversation, it’s almost like I’ve been running my own private museum and using the art market to fund it. If it became more interesting for me to think about actually directing a real public museum, it was because the gallery was already gradually moving in that direction.

A very important part of my excitement now comes from the museum’s potential as a platform for engaging a broader public. As you can tell from my programs at Deitch Projects, I’m as interested as anyone in esoteric, art-about-art-type artwork. But an experience that really changed my whole orientation began with a conversation with Annie Philbin, who, when she was the director of the Drawing Center, around the corner from the gallery, told me about the opening of her Barry McGee show. At six o’clock she went to unlock the front door, expecting the usual fifteen or twenty early comers, and she was amazed to see the entire street filled with kids, a lot carrying skateboards. I was inspired and, after visiting him in Saint Louis, finally persuaded him to do a show with me. Sure enough, there were a few thousand people in the street the evening of the opening. It turned out that Barry had brought some friends along to “get the word out,” tagging the neighborhood. This really opened my eyes. Certainly, when we opened in 1996, the art world was already opening up, no longer focusing just on East Coast America and western Europe; artists from countries formerly on the margins of the international art world were beginning to appear, and there was a wider view in terms of gender and ethnicity. But this was a whole new audience for visual art, with an entire countercultural communication system of tags on doorways and stickers on mailboxes. It was an audience of people who didn’t differentiate much between stimulating visual art and a new Quentin Tarantino film or a band like Animal Collective. It was an audience that had a much more intuitive grasp of visual culture than people had when that term was first used decades ago. Now, I’m not saying that this new situation is better than the rarefied art community centered around New York. That’s my foundation; I’ve written on Picasso for this magazine. What I am observing, however, is that visual culture has changed. As a gallery director and soon a museum director, I am adapting to this new audience and the artists who come out of it.

An institution like the Museum of Contemporary Art has to balance between its core art community and a larger one, but this is not about reconceiving the institution. It’s about acknowledging—and this is something Roberta Smith wrote about recently in the New York Times—that museum programming has become very narrow. Many contemporary institutions have tended toward academicism, boxing themselves into a post-Conceptual installation genre that looks only in on itself—with directors and curators, however well meaning, limiting themselves to a set vocabulary of what is acceptable as contemporary art. And this approach has had an impact even on the contemporary museum’s mandate to present the history of art during the past forty or fifty years, particularly when it comes to understanding how different media have been interconnected during that time. You see, the definitive exhibitions of this period have not yet been done—and certainly not about New York or Los Angeles in the 1980s. Consider how William Burroughs was such a tremendous influence in downtown New York culture. Musicians knew him. Artists knew him. Through him we can see how the cut-up aesthetic pervaded the downtown scene, whether in its novels, poetry, nonfiction, rock music, theater, or visual art. This is not just a story about pop and vanguard coming together. It’s a particular aesthetic that courses through various media, both rarefied and pop, in which one sees a struggle to return to the representational gesture after hard-core Conceptualism and Minimalism. People didn’t want to cancel out these things, but they did seek ways to get out of that corner and into more emotional, figurative expression.

For a museum like MoCA, then, there is a very serious professional audience and there is this big untapped crossover public, which you could see a few years ago at the opening of Takashi Murakami’s “SuperFlat”—for which the crowd was way beyond anything you would get for a similar museum opening in New York. So during my first year, there will be programs embracing the Los Angeles artist community. For instance, in the fall there is “The Artist Museum,” featuring Los Angeles art from 1980 to the present, drawn principally from MoCA’s own collection, and later there will be an exhibition of work by Dennis Hopper, a seminal figure in Los Angeles who was a key member of the Ferus Gallery scene and was in dialogue with artists such as Andy Warhol. (In fact, Hopper offers a remarkable example for contemporary artists, showing how you don’t need to tie yourself to one medium or even to one sphere: With Easy Rider [1969], he was among the first to introduce the 1960s artistic vanguard—given the film’s connections to the work of Bruce Conner—to a wider public, totally changing culture in the process.) And then the other big upcoming show is called “Art in the Streets”—the first ambitious exhibition by a major US museum about graffiti and art inspired by street culture. Here again, a lot of the material comes from LA, where we see a big subculture with a lot of skate and street-brand shops. This show is going to connect with that culture, dealing with artists like Saber, who comes out of the graffiti tradition and its logos and silk screens. This will certainly bring a new audience to the museum.

Keith Haring, untitled, 1983, acrylic on canvas, 63 x 63". © Estate of Keith Haring.

IN THINKING ABOUT THESE SHOWS, I’m not just a progeny of Warhol. I’m a child of 1960s idealism, where we really believed that art and a progressive attitude toward life could change consciousness. For me, Keith Haring is a great example of an artist whose work liberated people, who inspired people to liberate themselves sexually, who inspired other people to be more tolerant of people with sexual difference, and who was also warning us about subversive forces in the military, government, business—entities we needed to keep fighting against. True, the work became popular, and it eventually became valuable, but I think it kept this edge. You might lose it a little bit when you see a radiant baby on a teacup, but even then we have to recognize that this was a way to be democratic in art’s distribution. Everybody could have it. And I haven’t given up on that. For me, art will never be something just for a rarefied elite; it’s not just about understanding the philosophy around how an Abstract Expressionist composes a picture on canvas. It’s also about the idea that people can look at a work of art, or listen to a band, and their consciousness can be affected. They’re not going to live the same way, just making progress in their careers, making more money, or gaining at the expense of other people. I believe in art as a progressive social force.

This brings me back to the challenge of building a community around the museum today. Can this happen? In truth, I think it is already changing. Take the Museum of Modern Art in New York: I used to go there every single Friday night during the ’80s—it was how I developed my connoisseurship knowledge—and it was crowded, but it wasn’t that crowded. You could walk right in. You never had a line to check your coat. Now see what it’s like? You’ve got these great crowds on the weekends. The museum obviously has a different function in the city from what it did before. And it has developed programs to engage this public in a way it hadn’t before. The Pipilotti Rist show in the atrium was a great example of that, and more recently there was the Marina Abramović show. I think the Tino Sehgal show at the Guggenheim Museum is another really interesting example of engaging the audience and building a community.

Of course, there is another aspect to building a community that is incredibly important. A couple years ago, when I was on an Artforum panel at the New School in New York, we talked about how the marketplace—the auction houses and galleries—had overtaken the role of the museum in the process of deciding what’s important and valuable in art. So part of my motivation for going into the museum at this historical moment is to reestablish a kind of equilibrium. But this means having to find new ways to gather financial support for museums. In the United States, an institution can’t exist without philanthropists and patrons, so on one hand, the museum needs to create a platform for patrons so it’s exciting for them—so that board meetings aren’t boring but are instead something people look forward to. On the other hand, museums, unless they have some very, very generous patrons—which they can’t count on—have to open other revenue sources. They have to be more creative and savvy in working with business interests to create different, steady models. One of the things I hope to do is to reinvent the museum shop. Now, I know there are some minefields here—even now, people cite the motorcycle show at the Guggenheim [in 1998] as something that went over the line—but we are looking at a rapidly changing landscape where many advertisers don’t want conventional print or television ads. They want to connect with the community in a more interesting way, and there is subsequently great potential for museums to work with sponsors, for partnerships with luxury and consumer brands. Again, I say there are minefields. But it’s basically creative management—the combination of creative and management community-building experience you would apply to running a music venue or movie studio.

This might seem somewhat unusual now, but over time I do think more people will be drawn into museum management from creative-management backgrounds. It’s all about the development of a community around the museum and making people feel themselves to be truly part of the institution, whether the professionals—the collectors, the art historians—or the larger audience. And to me, this isn’t about getting people in the door to pay fifteen dollars. It’s part of an idealistic mission. Art enhances people’s lives. I believe there is great reward in presenting art that will stimulate people and maybe even change their consciousness.

—As told to Tim Griffin