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It's Official: Jeffrey Deitch Out as MOCA Director

Jeffrey Deitch MOCA - H 2013
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Jeffrey Deitch

Updated: The museum confirms that the controversial director is stepping down as the board appoints new leadership.

Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) announced Wednesday that Jeffrey Deitch is walking away from his job as director of the Los Angeles institution after three tough years, terminating his five-year contract early. Deitch informed the museum's board of trustees of his decision to depart at their meeting earlier in the day, telling them that he plans to remain at the museum through the transition period. He will also continue to oversee the museum's lifesaving $100 million endowment campaign, which has so far been a success and should allow Deitch to leave on a positive note. The campaign has so far raised about $80 million according to MOCA board-chair Maria Arena Bell.

The museum this afternoon also announced that investor and real estate executive Fred Sands will be the new president of the board of trustees and said that collector Eugenio Lopez, philanthropist Lillian Lovelace and Guess co-founder Maurice Marciano will be vice chairs. Jeffrey Soros, the outgoing president of the board, will remain as a trustee.

Deitch seems to evoke powerful emotions from people no matter what role he's in. From 1996 to 2010, Deitch was sometimes pilloried -- at times unfairly -- for his New York gallery Dietch Projects' overreliance on street art and commercialism, but it seemed like he was simply on a one-man mission to popularize art through more fashionable forms of expression. Deitch Projects held art parades and was the setting for Artstar, the first art world reality show; there were exhibitions from fashion brands (Imitation of Christ, Jeremy Scott, As Four, alife) and fashion photographers (Terry Richardson, Steven Klein) as well as hip bands (Fischerspooner, The Scissor Sisters). On the other hand, Deitch Projects’ size and reputation as a downtown institution did generate excitement. Shows like Dash Snow and Dan Colen’s Nest, in which the artists shredded phone books to create a hamster cage in the gallery, pushed the boundaries of art and good taste.

Above all, Deitch built his brand in New York, along with a reputation for omnipresence. His seersucker suits and round eyeglasses made him easy to spot -- a boon in the glad-handing art world. By 2010, Deitch was a messianic figure in the New York art scene. Meanwhile, over on the West Coast, MOCA had pushed out their director Jeremy Strick amid a major financial crisis that saw the museum's endowment dip to about $6 million (disaster was averted by philanthropist Eli Broad’s $30 million donation). The board of MOCA unanimously decided that Deitch (who was supported by Broad) was exactly the shot in the arm the museum needed. So, the man with the unflappable demeanor closed his gallery, pulled up stakes, and headed west.

But the hiccups started almost immediately. Deitch’s first order of business was to scratch a show by the late Jack Goldstein -- a beloved but obscure California artist -- to make room for a survey of actor Dennis Hopper’s work, which opened in November 2010. The critics chafed: was this more evidence in support of Deitch’s reputation for kowtowing to celebrity? Deitch got a temporary reprieve in April of 2011 when “Art in the Streets,” the first major museum survey of street art, proved itself a populist hit, drawing record numbers for the museum despite grumblings from critics that the show was a departure from the rigorous academic exhibitions curated by Paul Schimmel and Ann Goldstein under Strick.

But Goldstein departed for the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam when Strick left, and Schimmel and Deitch could never see eye to eye. Meanwhile, Marina Abramovic’s 2011 MOCA Gala -- an annual benefit programmed by a major contemporary artist -- was criticized for its exploitation of volunteer workers who had to sit under tables staring at the millionaire collectors while they ate, drank, and watched a Debbie Harry performance. The critical furor mounted when Deitch greenlighted an off-site project curated by James Franco that was panned almost unanimously. A planned exhibition about the history of disco became a battle cry for Deitch’s naysayers.

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And then the dams burst. On June 28, 2012, Schimmel was fired. This didn’t sit well with the four artist board members -- Catherine Opie, Ed Ruscha, John Baldessari and Barbara Kruger -- who had all departed by the second week of July. In the eyes of the media, the museum was officially in turmoil.

To make matters worse, contributions to the museum declined despite the addition of wealthy collectors such as Steven Cohen and Peter Brant to the board. And in August 2012, MOCA founding chairman and life trustee Broad refused a payment, his company spokesperson attributing the withholding to a mismanagement of funds under Deitch and the inability of the museum to raise enough money to match Broad’s gift, a stipulation of the bailout. The fallout of Schimmel’s departure led to the postponement of the 2012 gala. And by December 2012, MOCA began discussions with the University of Southern California to possibly partner and have USC pull MOCA back from its precipice.

While it appears those talks eventually petered out, Bell says that it's still possible for a MOCA/USC partnership. Also, by March of this year, MOCA’s main rival, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art had made a formal proposal to take over the institution's financials. It looked like a steal for LACMA, an acquisition of MOCA’s highly regarded contemporary art collection (one of the few areas that LACMA lags) for pennies on the dollar. But those talks, too, fell apart, reportedly partly due to a stipulation in Broad’s contract for his bailout that MOCA remain independent from other L.A. museums. Broad tried to start a conversation with The National Gallery of Washington, D.C., but they declined to provide anything more than advice. MOCA remained independent. Bell, however, denies the reports that Broad had invoked anything from his contract in nixing the LACMA talks. She says, " It wasn't true that we couldn't make these deals work or anything stood in the way of making a partnership. The board rose up as one and said, 'Look, this is what we want: the MOCA that we love to remain independent." Citing the $80 million raised so far, she says, "The board put their money where their mouth is to support MOCA."

In April, Deitch unveiled a survey of conceptual artist Urs Fischer, and asked artist provocateur Rob Pruitt to put together a Gala to coincide with the opening. Both the exhibition and the mish-mash of a gala received mixed reviews, and there were even more cynical grumblings that Fischer’s most loyal collector Peter Morton’s funding of the survey was nothing more than insider trading -- the high-profile exhibit would drive Fischer’s prices up, thus driving the value of Morton’s collection up as well. Bell, however, says that this type of funding is not unusual in the museum world. "On any board, there will be collector's of that artist's work who will be on that board. You will go to them when you're doing a show and ask them to lead by example and then you go and ask the collectors of this artist outside the circle [to help fund the show] as well. That's the way it's done everywhere.

STORY: A Self-Consciously Weird 2013 MOCA Gala Raises $2.5 Million

Regardless, the show wasn’t universally panned -- just criticized for Fischer’s reputation as a commercial darling. The show was actually quite good, and Deitch finally got some amnesty when it was announced that the gala and subsequent fundraising campaign had boosted MOCA’s endowment to $100 million. And MOCAtv, the Deitch spearheaded initiative to ramp up the museum’s online presence, has been well-received, and consistently produces high-quality art-based content.

Still, it seems Deitch has had enough. Recently rumors have surfaced that he's been apartment hunting in New York and is looking to reopen a gallery on Manhattan's Upper East Side. The obituaries for his directorship were written and published before MOCA lifted their media blackout on the situation. He’ll leave with a legacy of mixed reviews and financial struggles, but his contributions to Los Angeles -- namely pushing the city to accept art that exists outside the lines of tradition -- shouldn’t be ignored.

As for MOCA, they’ve put together a search committee to appoint a new director, led by co-chairs Bell and David Johnson, along with Joel Wachs, a former trustee and the president of the Warhol Foundation in New York. But recently, an insider-trading scandal has enveloped MOCA board member Steven Cohen and put his all-important contributions to the museum in jeopardy, which doesn’t bode well for the incoming director's ability to keep MOCA drama free, vital, and financially stable. According to Bell, though, the museum's fundraising is moving along on target, with a number of further major contributions to be announced in coming weeks.