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Rob Perrée: MoCA in LA looses it's controversial director Jeffrey Deitch

MoCA in LA looses it's controversial director Jeffrey Deitch

The New York Times

July 23, 2013
Los Angeles Contemporary Art Museum’s Director to Leave

After three tumultuous years at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, Jeffrey Deitch, the former New York art dealer, has decided to step down as director, leaving a museum whose finances have begun to stabilize but whose staff and exhibition program are in disarray.

Mr. Deitch has told trustees that he intends to leave, and the museum’s board, which will meet on Wednesday, is expected to form a search committee, according to a trustee, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. Mr. Deitch’s appointment was regarded as a bold experiment in commercial-to-institutional crossover, though he had always run his New York gallery, Deitch Projects, more like a private contemporary museum than a place for selling art. He took over a deeply troubled institution in 2010, only two years after it came close to collapse: its endowment was drawn down to less than $10 million and there were discussions of a merger with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Mr. Deitch moved quickly and decisively to put in place a curatorial program that reflected his belief that the art world was too insular and that to cultivate a new generation of art lovers, museums needed to think unconventionally by breaking down barriers among art, music, fashion and other creative worlds. But one of his first shows, a survey of art by the actor and art-world fellow traveler Dennis Hopper, who was then dying of cancer, was poorly received.

Other shows — an examination of the influence of the blues on art, work by the emerging artist Amanda Ross-Ho, post-Warhol abstraction — were more successful. And a blockbuster survey of the history of street art, one of Mr. Deitch’s core interests, was wildly popular, drawing more than 200,000 visitors during four months in 2011 and setting an attendance record for a show at the museum. (In 2009, the year before Mr. Deitch arrived, the museum’s total attendance was 148,000.)

But Mr. Deitch, who is in the third year of a five-year contract, was never quite able to find his footing in Los Angeles. Deep disagreements between him and Paul Schimmel, the museum’s longtime chief curator, led to Mr. Schimmel’s departure, under pressure, last year. (Mr. Schimmel has since crossed over to the commercial side of the art world, joining the prominent gallery Hauser & Wirth.) Supporters of Mr. Deitch have privately accused Mr. Schimmel of campaigning against Mr. Deitch even before he arrived to take the job.

After Mr. Schimmel’s departure, all the artists on the museum’s board — John Baldessari, Catherine Opie, Barbara Kruger and Ed Ruscha — resigned in protest. And earlier this year the museum once again briefly explored a merger with the larger Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

The barrage of criticism from some members of the city’s art world put Mr. Deitch into what seemed like a constant defensive posture. “I’ve never experienced this kind of distortion,” he told The New York Times last year, speaking about accusations that he was destroying the museum’s integrity with a program too obsessed with pop culture.

“I suppose it’s characteristic of the movie industry that people are in and out,” he added. “In New York I was always really appreciated for my contribution, but you would think that all I’ve done here is court Hollywood and do celebrity art.”

Mr. Deitch, who did not return phone messages left over the last two days, had been planning ambitious exhibitions, including one about the cultural influence of disco and another of work by Vanessa Beecroft, who was formerly represented by his New York gallery. It is unclear whether those shows remain on the schedule. The museum’s staff is extremely thin, with only two full-time curators remaining after several departures during the past three years.

Mr. Deitch’s decision to step down, first reported by LA Weekly, comes as the museum is on the way to righting its finances for the first time in years. A fund-raising drive by board members has secured pledges of more than $75 million in donations, toward a goal of $100 million, led by Jeffrey Soros, a nephew of the financier George Soros, and Eugenio López, founder of one of the most important private collections of contemporary art in Latin America.

It is unclear whether those pledges came with an understanding that Mr. Deitch would soon be departing. But even amid the most intense criticism leveled at Mr. Deitch, many members of the board supported his vision for the museum. Maria Arena Bell and David G. Johnson, the board’s chairwoman and chairman, issued a statement last summer, as artists were leaving the board, saying, “There is a paradigm shift happening today, and both art and its audience are changing.” Mr. Deitch, they added, “came here to bring us into this new era, and we are 100 percent behind him and his vision for that.”

Robin Pogrebin and Carol Vogel contributed reporting.