Jeffrey Deitch: Director, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

By Griffin, Tim | Artforum International, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

Jeffrey Deitch: Director, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles


Griffin, Tim, Artforum International


LOOKING BACK AT MY GALLERY during the past fifteen years, I've become increasingly aware of how it operated as a private ICA. Most of our programming was not commercial--for instance, the recent Josh Smith show of forty-seven paintings made directly on the wall, which you can't sell. And, in fact, Deitch Projects was not originally intended to be a gallery. It was inspired by Art & Project in Amsterdam, with the concept being that I would only invite artists who had never shown in New York and who would not just hang new paintings or photographs but instead wanted to create a project for the space. I would provide artists with up to twenty-five thousand dollars in production or travel money and living stipend; if we sold the work, the twenty-five thousand dollars would be reimbursed and we would split the remaining proceeds. If we didn't sell it, we could be very relaxed. The artist didn't have to worry. I would just keep an equivalent amount of work for my own collection to cover the investment and production. And so when you add my personal collection to the conversation, it's almost like I've been running my own private museum and using the art market to fund it. If it became more interesting for me to think about actually directing a real public museum, it was because the gallery was already gradually moving in that direction.

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A very important part of my excitement now comes from the museum's potential as a platform for engaging a broader public. As you can tell from my programs at Deitch Projects, I'm as interested as anyone in esoteric, art-about-art-type artwork. But an experience that really changed my whole orientation began with a conversation with Annie Philbin, who, when she was the director of the Drawing Center, around the corner from the gallery, told me about the opening of her Barry McGee show. At six o'clock she went to unlock the front door, expecting the usual fifteen or twenty early comers, and she was amazed to see the entire street filled with kids, a lot carrying skateboards. I was inspired and, after visiting him in Saint Louis, finally persuaded him to do a show with me. Sure enough, there were a few thousand people in the street the evening of the opening. It turned out that Barry had brought some friends along to "get the word out," ragging the neighborhood. This really opened my eyes. Certainly, when we opened in 1996, the art world was already opening up, no longer focusing just on East Coast America and western Europe; artists from countries formerly on the margins of the international art world were beginning to appear, and there was a wider view in terms of gender and ethnicity. But this was a whole new audience for visual art, with an entire countercultural communication system of tags on doorways and stickers on mailboxes. It was an audience of people who didn't differentiate much between stimulating visual art and a new Quentin Tarantino film or a band like Animal Collective. It was an audience that had a much more intuitive grasp of visual culture than people had when that term was first used decades ago. Now, I'm not saying that this new situation is better than the rarefied art community centered around New York. That's my foundation; I've written on Picasso for this magazine. What I am observing, however, is that visual culture has changed. As a gallery director and soon a museum director, I am adapting to this new audience and the artists who come out of it.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

An institution like the Museum of Contemporary Art has to balance between its core art community and a larger one, but this is not about reconceiving the institution. It's about acknowledging--and this is something Roberta Smith wrote about recently in the New York Times--that museum programming has become very narrow. Many contemporary institutions have tended toward academicism, boxing themselves into a post-Conceptual installation genre that looks only in on itself--with directors and curators, however well meaning, limiting themselves to a set vocabulary of what is acceptable as contemporary art. …

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