The January 11 announcement that New York powerhouse dealer Jeffrey Deitch will assume the directorship of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) sent shock waves through the international art world’s institutional and commercial sectors. Deitch’s new posting represents an unprecedented elision of the private and public in contemporary art.
Deitch’s considerable gift—refined over three decades of private and corporate art advising, nurture of unknown artists and art movements (including the early-1980s New York graffiti artists Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring), curation, publishing and gallery operation—is fluent improvisation. He built his empire by engineering new social and financial arrangements, putting hedge-fund managers and grungy downtown artists in the same room, effortlessly introducing disparate sources of influence and power to one another. But with these casual overlappings come ethical questions.
In the late 1990s, for example, the dealer helped develop a top market value, at a dazzling pace, for new-media artist Mariko Mori. In 2003, Deitch wrote the strategic plan for the Mori Art Center, part of Tokyo’s massive Roppongi Hills development, steered by construction tycoon Minoru Mori, Mariko’s uncle. There is nothing illegal about such work, but there is an intimacy and privacy to these sorts of arrangements that does not befit a museum’s public mission. Having hemorrhaged USD 44 million of its $50 million endowment in nine years, only to be bailed out by billionaire Eli Broad in December 2008, MoCA needs a tough money man such as Deitch at the wheel, but it also sorely needs financial transparency.
Deitch is a curatorial visionary, and theJune closure of his New York galleries will leave a prominent hole in the cultural landscape. The boldness of projects such as Yoko Ono’s Ex It (1998), made up of 100 citrus trees sprouting from coffins in Deitch’s Wooster Street space, are a reminder of the dealer’s rare ability to reinvigorate and reinvent, to both look back reverentially and write new chapters in artists’ careers. The art world eagerly anticipates the veteran impresario’s next moves and will scrutinize them very carefully.