The courtship of Jeffrey Deitch was a speedy affair. The dealer began talks with Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) in December and was named director a month later. But New York-based Deitch, 57, considers the appointment the culmination of years of experience. “I’ve been training my entire life for this,” he told The Art Newspaper.
While sceptics have questioned his lack of direct museum experience, Deitch says his business acumen made him an especially attractive candidate. “One of the reasons the board wanted to bring me in is I ran a business for a long time and it is second nature to me,” says Deitch. “I’m used to finding money to support my ambitious programmes, and I’m confident that I’m going to find creative ways to increase the financial base of MoCA.” He says the budget of his New York City gallery, Deitch Projects, is about half the size of the museum’s budget. Under the previous museum director Jeremy Strick, MoCA’s budget grew from $15m to $21m, cut to $16m for 2010.
Deitch says he plans to build on MoCA’s “amazing heritage” and at the same time make the museum more inclusive, by offering shows that combine “intellectual rigour with broader appeal”. He aims to stage exhibitions that will “engage the Los Angeles community”, mentioning the large Mexican-American population as an example.
Deitch’s appointment startled many in the art world who hadn’t expected the museum would choose a dealer for the top job. Yet MoCA’s trustees cast a wide net in its effort to replace Strick, who resigned in 2008 amid the museum’s highly public financial crisis. They considered candidates from the museum and commercial sectors, ultimately settling on a man who has no shortage of charisma or connections, but who has limited professional museum experience.
MoCA, which has a 6,000-strong permanent collection, has recently emerged from near death as the endowment withered from $38.2m in 2000 to $6m in 2008. In the past year, ten new board members were appointed and $64m has been raised, led by Los Angeles philanthropist and the museum’s founding chairman, Eli Broad, who gave the first $30m.
Deitch says he didn’t view his gallery as a purely commercial venture. “I have run Deitch Projects as a private museum—I just funded it myself,” he says. “Most of my projects were funded through private dealing and art advisory work.”
Now the dealer is obliged to sever all ties to the commercial art world, which will have consequences for Deitch Projects. “I am working on a smooth transition, taking care of artists and staff,” he says, adding that it is too soon for any specific plans. He says there are at least ten artists whom he supports financially. He says he has a five-month transition period before he starts at MoCA on 1 June.
Deitch says he may place some gallery inventory into his own collection, which he calls “extensive”. “The collection was never anything designed to decorate my home,” he says. Deitch calls it a record of his relationships with artists and says he has tried to acquire major pieces from all of the artists he has worked with. “At some point I hope I will be in a position to turn that over to a foundation,” says Deitch. “But I am leaving the option open.” For the moment, Deitch is still adjusting to the prospect of life in Los Angeles.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Gallerist turns museum director'