Maybe two out of three isn’t bad. Los Angeles has gotten two quite effective museum directors from New York. Ann Philbin went from the Drawing Center to head the Hammer Museum. Michael Govan went from the Dia Art Foundation to become director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Both seem to be doing swimmingly.
But a much rougher time is being had by the third, Jeffrey Deitch, who closed his SoHo gallery in the spring of 2010 to become director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, an institution with an enviable curatorial record but historically plagued by financial problems. Criticism about his tenure has been constant, but has intensified over the last three and a half weeks in the wake of the departure under pressure of Paul Schimmel, the museum’s brilliant, headstrong chief curator, after a vote by the trustees. The chemistry between the two men was known to be troubled.
Even more disturbing than Mr. Schimmel’s leaving after 22 years was news that his position would not be filled and that the museum would rely more on freelance curators. Around the same time there was increasing talk in both the press and the art world of Mr. Deitch’s problems in fund-raising.
And then came word that an exhibition about art and disco was in development. Complaints escalated that Mr. Deitch was emphasizing populist entertainment and glitz at the expense of the scholarly rigor associated with Mr. Schimmel. The next week or so brought the resignations of all four artist-trustees: John Baldessari, Catherine Opie, Barbara Kruger and Ed Ruscha.
The museum, which counted artists among its most active founders, has always had them on its board. In a sense their loss was as shocking as anything that came before, because it signaled in the extreme a loss of faith on the part of artists. Mr. Deitch’s tenure as director has so far been a disappointment even to the people who thought it was a feasible idea in the first place, of whom I was one.
I considered it “a brilliant stroke,” I wrote at the time, calling it an example of a museum thinking outside the box, and also an appropriately desperate measure for desperate times. The museum had come close to collapse in 2008 after drawing its endowment down to $5 million (it was once around $40 million), and there was talk of selling the collection or merging with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. That threat was averted by the real estate developer and cultural philanthropist Eli Broad, a founding trustee of the museum, who returned to the museum’s board after a 15-year hiatus and donated a $30 million bailout, and then had a big hand in Mr. Deitch’s appointment.
I didn’t buy the idea that someone from the gallery world cannot cross over into the museum sphere or that advanced degrees in art history are essential, and I still don’t. It was certainly not beyond the realm of possibility that given Mr. Deitch’s wide art world experience he could have met the challenge of a big museum. But instead of redefining himself in a bid to do that, he seems to have redefined the job.
Rather than encourage and cultivate curators much the way an art dealer encourages and cultivates artists, he has frequently chosen to assume the role of curator himself, when he wasn’t commissioning celebrities to do it. He started with an exhibition devoted to photographs and other artworks by the actor Dennis Hopper organized by Julian Schnabel, then staged an off-site show about James Dean organized by James Franco. His 2011 “Art in the Streets” exhibition, although better received by critics and very well-attended, didn’t help establish a serious tone. And it included several artists whom Mr. Deitch had represented as an art dealer — at-best a sloppy-looking overlap between his former role as a dealer and his current one as a custodian of a public institution.
For all his missteps, though, it is much too simplistic to blame Mr. Deitch alone for the air of crisis that now surrounds the museum. He has certainly hurt its image and he has failed to make much of a dent in its more urgent financial problems. But he did not create those. They preceded him by many years and are part of a tortuous history with many players. The museum has long been financially fragile; its board has rarely provided the kind of financial support that an institution of its quality requires and deserves. It continues not to, which brings us back to Mr. Broad.
His bailout of the museum four years ago gave him a dominance on the board that caused some trustees to leave and suggested to many people the possibility that his bailout might someday morph into a takeover that would merge the museum’s exemplary collection of art with his own, more predictable, market-driven one. It didn’t help that within months of Mr. Deitch’s appointment Mr. Broad finalized plans to build his own museum across the street from the Museum of Contemporary Art, now scheduled to open within a year or two.
Given Mr. Broad’s fraught history with other Los Angeles museums, his denials about taking over this one remain hard to trust. In an interview in The Los Angeles Times he said, “If I wanted to do that, why would I have saved MOCA?” But he hasn’t so much saved it as staved off its demise, and without more money either from him or other trustees, the place is more or less on life-support. (It is interesting to note that its $14.3 million budget for the fiscal year 2011 is a little below the $16 million of the Hammer, a museum with roughly one-quarter its gallery space. And yet, while the Museum of Contemporary Art’s staff has been whittled down to a skeletal 45, the Hammer has 95.)
Meanwhile a recent Los Angeles Times op-ed piece by Mr. Broad contributed to a widespread and unhelpful binary view of the situation, calling the museum’s great exhibitions of the past “insular” and Mr. Deitch’s vision “populist,” a gross simplification and misrepresentation on both counts. Mr. Broad also cited attendance as a sign of a show’s success, a very limited idea of the cultural benefits of museums to say the least.
Whether or not Mr. Deitch was the best person for the job now seems largely moot. He is the one who said yes, who showed up and has thrown himself into what may actually be a kind of mission impossible, with or without his many errors in judgment. At this point he, Mr. Broad and the other trustees only have one another. They have got to make it work. The main way for this to happen is for the other board members to step up to the plate and give enough money to counterbalance Mr. Broad’s contributions and his views. You can’t have a one-person board any more than you can have a one-person museum.
For his part Mr. Deitch has to become a real museum director. He has to stop organizing exhibitions — in part to create more of a firewall between his new job and his previous identity. He has to hone his fund-raising skills and hire and cultivate curators, including, as The Los Angeles Times said in an editorial on Friday, a new chief curator — which of course will take money.
And although one can be grateful for the wake-up call delivered by the departures of the four artist-trustees, artists need to reassert themselves in the life of this museum. They have the numbers and the clout to make a difference. Above all they have the vision. The Los Angeles cultural world cannot turn its back on an institution that has been so central to its stature as one of the world’s greatest art capitals.
via NEW YORK TIMES