The announcement that Jeffrey Deitch will assume the post of director at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles this June has unleashed a flood of commentary from art critics and museum professionals: doubt and dissent in some quarters, praise for outside–the–box thinking in others. Among the questions being debated are, What business does a member of the commercial sector—the founder and head of the freewheeling gallery Deitch Projects in downtown Manhattan—have running the curatorially admired, financially challenged institution? How will his ties with gallery artists and prominent collectors affect his decisions? How will his own collection, containing key works by blue–chip artists, be handled? And what is his agenda for the future of MOCA?
In a two–hour interview with ARTnews, held in the sleek and airy annex opposite one of two Deitch Projects outposts in SoHo (there’s another gallery in Long Island City), the dealer talked about his background, his preferences in art, and his still–nascent vision for the museum. “People who know me are not surprised that now’s the time I want to direct a museum, because I’ve been curating in a very ambitious way since I was 22,” he comments.
At 57, Deitch has a sober but boyish air, enhanced by his trademark owlish glasses and preppy–chic corduroy pants and jacket. Raised in Hartford, Connecticut, Deitch showed a keen eye even as a teenager, when he picked out a Léger print at a community art show for his mother to buy him. Later, at Wesleyan University, Deitch was part of a student group that invited the transgender Andy Warhol superstar Jackie Curtis to campus. “I remember reading every word of Interview magazine, and one of the things I wanted to do as soon as I could was meet Andy,” Deitch says.
After running a gallery in the Berkshires the summer he was 19, he switched his major from economics to art, a disappointment to some because he was on a scholarship from the consulting firm McKinsey & Company, which nonetheless allowed him to work as a researcher at its Paris office the next summer. During his free time, Deitch scoured galleries and began collecting. “In those days, you could still go to a gallery and buy things like Delacroix prints out of a bin for about 100 francs,” he says. “I still have those prints.”
Not knowing whether he wanted to be an artist, a dealer, a curator, a writer, or some combination of all four, Deitch moved to New York after college and went to work at John Weber Gallery. He left after a year, went on unemployment, and hung out in clubs as the punk–rock scene was emerging. In 1975 he curated his first independent exhibition, “Lives,” in an abandoned Tribeca building. The show, Deitch remembers, “included all the artists who were at that time redefining what art could be through a personal involvement in their lives.” Among them were Vito Acconci, Joseph Beuys, Scott Burton, Dennis Oppenheim, Warhol, and Hannah Wilke. Weber asked Deitch if he wanted to become director of his gallery, but Deitch decided he wasn’t ready. He wanted to spend a couple of more years in academe, preferably attending business school. Because his mother was an economist and his father ran the family fuel business, “that was something that was expected of me,” he recalls. He enrolled in Harvard Business School, where he studied economic structures and marketing while still following contemporary art. For a panel convened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, he wrote an ambitious paper about Warhol as a “business artist,” which appeared in abridged form in Art in America and led to the beginning of a long association with the artist, whom Deitch describes as “one of the most brilliant minds I’ve ever encountered.” From the late ’70s until Warhol’s death, in 1987, the two went to auction previews together and met regularly, even traveling to Hong Kong with the whole Factory entourage for an exhibition of Warhol portraits there; Deitch takes credit for masterminding the show.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, Deitch also became fast friends with Sol LeWitt, whom he met while working at John Weber. If there was something to be delivered to the artist, Deitch would volunteer, “so that I could be in Sol’s presence,” he says with unabashed reverence.
Acting on a hunch that “financial institutions might be very interested in the art market,” Deitch approached both Citibank and Chase Manhattan with a proposal for establishing an art–market department. He signed on with Citi, developing the first bank art–advisory program. “It wasn’t so much about managing investments as managing assets, because professional art advisories didn’t exist in 1979,” he says. “At the time, Sotheby’s and Christie’s weren’t user–friendly; there were no estimates in the catalogues, and people didn’t know if a Monet, for instance, was worth $100,000 or $300,000.” Deitch brought in conservators, curators, and other experts to advise clients who had inherited art or were beginning to collect. The bank also developed an art–loan program, allowing borrowers to use art as collateral. While at Citi, Deitch encountered two other major figures he credits as mentors: William S. Rubin, then director of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, and the art historian Robert Rosenblum, polar opposites in their attitudes toward contemporary art.
After nearly a decade at Citi—and, he says, after turning down a curatorial position at MoMA—in 1988 Deitch established his own art–advisory firm, attracting megacollectors like Greek industrialist Dakis Joannou and others he prefers not to name. He brokered important sales, including James Rosenquist’s F-111 (1964–65) and Robert Rauschenberg’s Factum II (1957) to MoMA. And in 1992–93, he organized the traveling exhibition that many today remember as his most influential: “Post Human,” an exploration of the changing nature of figuration in a society where social and genetic engineering were becoming the norm. The show included such then–rising art stars as Paul McCarthy, Damien Hirst, Matthew Barney, and Kiki Smith.
In 1996 the dealer opened Deitch Projects. The name was meant to be taken literally: the gallery offered up to $25,000 and ample space to artists who had ambitions beyond the confines of their studio practices, provided they had never had a solo show in New York. In recent years, Deitch Projects has become famous for some of its more startling ventures, such as the “Hamster Nest” installation by Dan Colen and Dash Snow (an overnight free–for–all with 30 or so artists frolicking among thousands of shredded phone books) and the Mardi Gras–like Art Parade. Deitch himself has become interested in a new kind of street culture, reminiscent of the East Village in the ’80s, but more inclusive in its practices—drawing in poets, performers, musicians, and artists alike. Its exemplars include figures like Barry McGee, Chris Johanson, Fischerspooner, and Swoon. The audience is a crossover crowd—fashion people, writers who want to give readings, film directors who want to show a new release—and “not necessarily a professional art audience,” he says.
It’s this kind of energy he hopes to bring to Los Angeles, while at the same time supporting more–traditional, historical shows. He also acknowledges that adding to the collection and building financial stability are continuing priorities (the museum was bailed out of dire fiscal straits by a $30 million loan from founding chairman Eli Br
oad in 2008). Deitch intends to wind down all involvement in the commercial world by June, hoping to turn the galleries over to his staff. “The kind of artists I work with,” he adds, “are self–reliant, independent people, and a lot of them will have no problem with the transition at all.” He has no plans to bring the entire roster of Deitch regulars to MOCA in the near future, but he hopes to work with many of them. As for his personal collection—which includes significant pieces from almost every artist he has championed and huge installations such as McCarthy’s The Garden (1991–92) and Tatsuo Miyajima’s Sea of Time (1988)—he sees no conflict of interest, because he does not want to sell anything.
His biggest trepidation is about driving in famously sprawling Los Angeles, even though he mastered the stick shift as a teenager, on the family company’s fuel–oil truck. “I haven’t had to drive in years, and I love taking the subway in New York,” he admits. “I’ve been joking that there are subways in Los Angeles, and I want to find a house along one of those lines.”
Ann Landi is a contributing editor of ARTnews.