If you’re like me, you’ve already been inundated with a whole range of opinions on MOCA’s announcement this week, and it’s only Thursday. Whether they are ultimately booing or cheering, everyone and their mother seems to be up in arms about the board’s unanimous decision to hire Jeffrey Deitch as the new director of Los Angeles’s foremost contemporary art institution.
Deitch’s reputation as both a savvy business man and over-the-top sensationalist precede him. In various rhetorical feats, these two aspects of Deitch’s notorious career are being claimed by both sides of the argument, simultaneously leveraged as selling points by supporters while being cited by naysayers as evidence that MOCA will find itself hurtling, once again, toward catastrophe. Deitch himself told The New Yorker in 2007, “‘I helped create this whole thing of a professional art-advisory service, and also this fusion of art and entertainment…I’m not sure which one the old school despises more.’”
It’s been nearly five years since I looked straight into the bespectacled eyes of Deitch. Against my better judgment, I was auditioning for his reality TV show ArtStar, amidst warnings from my New York friends that Deitch was a “polarizing figure.” As it turned out, my audition was unsuccessful and ultimately, so was the TV series. But even if nobody watched it, the show was encircled by countless heated debates, and the move was indeed polarizing. The main concern, of course, was if a reality TV show about art would further erode the problematically shrinking gap between intellectual innovation and populist entertainment.
This week, Bravo announced the details of a copycat art reality TV show, entitled Work of Art: The Next Great Artist (for which I may or may not have also auditioned). News that the show will feature art world heavyweights Simon de Pury, Jerry Saltz, and Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn has surely dominated the art blogosphere this week. However, Deitch’s appointment by MOCA, coincidentally announced less than 24 hours later, has eclipsed a revival of the debate first sparked by ArtStar. While the Merchant of MOCA controversy traverses essentially the same territory as the reality art TV conundrum—i.e. the complicated intersection of creativity and commercialism—the stakes are much higher in the case of the former.
If Deitch’s director gig proves to be a successful move for MOCA, it could mark a new trend of MBAs invading positions historically reserved for PhDs. Interestingly enough, the discourse around this floodgate seems to shake down, to a large degree, along geographic lines. Given Los Angeles’s reputation as an epicenter of the conflation of high and low, and New York’s status as the country’s seat of sophistication, you might expect that my West coast city would support MOCA’s hiring of an art mogul, while New Yorkers might find it another example of Angelenos’ abhorrent classlessness. Not so! As Andrew Berardini reported in his skeptical ArtForum.com article, “concerned citizens” of the LA art world threatened to stage a protest at Tuesday’s press conference at MOCA. Meanwhile Christopher Knight‘s dissident LA Times article implies that MOCA’s selection of Deitch constitutes a gesture of self-sabotage, asking, “why does the Museum of Contemporary Art’s board of trustees dislike art museums?”
Yet New York critics and journalists–with some notable exceptions–seem almost giddy about the prospect of Deitch at the helm of MOCA. While they acknowledge that MOCA’s choice to break rank with tradition by bringing in a commercial gallerist is a risky move, Jerry Saltz, Leon Neyfakh, and Roberta Smith all argue that Jeffrey Deitch will add some much-needed mojo and money to MOCA, and to the city of Los Angeles as a whole. In her recent New York Times article, Smith heralds Deitch’s appointment as “a development that may very well make Los Angeles the most exciting city in the world for museums of contemporary art, the place where the future of museums takes shape.” Wow, Ms. Smith. Although I am totally rooting for LA, I find that thought to be…well, kind of terrifying.