L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art has confirmed what’s been the talk of the art world for several days: Its controversial director, Jeffrey Deitch, is resigning two years before his contract expires.
The museum’s statement didn’t say whether Deitch wanted out or whether the museum’s board of trustees wanted him to go. It did say he’ll stay during the search for a new director — and until MOCA wraps up its ambitious $100 million fundraising campaign in the fall.
"I think Jeffrey did his best in the rough circumstances that he was given," said artist Cindy Bernard. She co-founded a patron group after MOCA’s crumbling finances nearly forced it to close in 2008. (A $30 million gift from billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad bailed the museum out.)
Bernard said Deitch came to L.A. to increase the museum’s attendance and broaden its audience — and he succeeded.
His method: unconventional exhibits. A former gallery owner in New York, Deitch displayed photographs and paintings by the late actor-photographer Dennis Hopper on MOCA's walls. He also curated the “Art in the Streets” graffiti retrospective in 2011 that broke MOCA's attendance records.
As for the museum's fundraising galas — he turned then into over-the-top naughty carnivals.
But some critics said that increase in audience came at the cost of quality. While the street art exhibit was well regarded, the Hopper and other exhibits were seen as low-brow.
"One of the reasons why the Hammer and LACMA programming seems to have improved is partly because the programming at MOCA has been poorer," said Art Center College of Design professor Gary Kornblau.
Deitch oversaw the dismantling of MOCA’s legendary curatorial department, including the departure — some say firing — of long-time chief curator Paul Schimmel.
He and Deitch did not see to eye, and the museum has yet to replace Schimmel. It may decide not to. Ed Ruscha, John Baldessari and other prominent artists resigned from MOCA's board after Schimmel's departure.
Despite its leadership turmoil, MOCA retains an excellent reputation nationwide, said Martha Morris of George Washington University.
"There are lots of people that would love to have that job, I’m sure, so they probably won’t have too much trouble filling the position," she said.
MOCA's formed a search committee to find Deitch's replacement. That group includes trustees Maria Bell, David Johnson and former Los Angeles City councilman Joel Wachs, who now runs the Warhol Foundation. One big question is whether they'll pick a well-respected contemporary art museum administrator or another art world personality like Deitch.